Judith Warner: What Girls Should Learn from “Boys in Crisis”

It looks like the Times has found a young columnist with guts. Quite interesting, if you’ve been following all the recent stories about America’s “boy’s crisis.”

What Girls Ought to Learn From Boys in ‘Crisis’

Published: July 12, 2006

More on the “boy crisis�: A new report that came out yesterday from the American Council on Education has confirmed that there is a gender gap on American college campuses. It gapes the widest between African-American men and women. It is increasing, disturbingly, among low- income whites and Hispanics. It phases out as you go up the income ladder, then disappears entirely as you enter the upper middle class. (According to the report’s author, Jacqueline E. King, 52 percent of college students from the top income quartile — families earning $97,500 or more — are male.)

All of which will most likely have no effect on the affluent parents making the most noise about the “boy crisis� in our nation’s schools. So let’s ride the wave, and leave aside the truly important issues the new report raises — i.e. why are fewer poor white and Hispanic men now attending college, and why, in particular, are young African-American men being left behind? — and let’s instead together have some fun, as I did, last Sunday, reflecting on The New York Times’s boy-crisis-inspired survey of “performance differences� in males and females of high school and college age.

I took a little trip down memory lane while reading about college men who hang out, socialize, play video games and “take the path of least resistance� in their classes and then go on to out-earn and professionally outperform the girls who juggle jobs, internships, campus activities and honors-level course work.

This is not just because my husband, Max, and I were once the college boy who coasted by on his prodigious intellect and the girl who worked like a demon. Nor is it because he has outworked and outearned me throughout our careers. No, the story brought back a memory much more specific than that. It recalled an image from a trip we took to Bali back in 1989, shortly before we were married.

During our travels around the island, where we worked for two months, we came one day upon a construction site, where women were walking up and down a steep hillside, balancing baskets of bricks on their heads. Meanwhile, by the road, a group of men were squatting, smoking clove cigarettes and, undoubtedly, strategizing about efficiency and productivity and the bottom line.

This was perhaps not the best cultural experience to have had just before getting married, but we were very young and had many years of eating takeout still to go before issues of domestic load-sharing entered our lives. On Sunday night, though, as I read The Times’s boys-on-campus piece — while simultaneously giving a bath, putting away laundry and writing a week’s worth of columns in my head — the colorful image of sarong-clad men and women suddenly lodged itself inside my mind. It seemed to have some kind of great significance. So I raced to share it with Max, who was having a little lie-down on the couch, having done some very tiring driving earlier in the day.

As I began to talk, his fingers reflexively felt for the TV remote, trying — and I really don’t think this was conscious — to turn me either down or off. When this proved fruitless, he resorted to words: “interesting,� first, then “work on that� and, finally (TV volume rising now) “Sounds great — get to it!�

Max, who is an editor, is of the opinion that extreme stress feeds my writing. He is very supportive of my career.

Clearly, the pattern of selective male laziness and female frenzy that begins among young men and women in college persists long after graduation. Someday soon, I am sure, an evolutionary biologist will teach us how all this is hard-wired — and why it is worthwhile. But in the meantime, I’d like to suggest that there’s something more at work here than relative levels of skill or laziness or drivenness or privilege, though all that clearly plays a role. It seems to me that, from an early age, men seem to be quite clear about what expenditures of energy are worth their time. Like kids with A.D.D. (the majority of whom are boys), they’re able to spend great amounts of attention and energy on things they find interesting, but show considerable signs of challenge when it comes to tasks they find boring or personally unprofitable.

Is this really a problem? Women would probably say yes. But I doubt, somehow, that men are going to put a lot of energy into fixing it.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

Interesting. I for one know it sounds like me, as I was top of my class in liberal arts and a C student in math and science…

July 11, 2006 @ 10:33 pm | Comment

Well, this is one of those big, “Duh” issues. Women have to work harder to be taken as seriously as men. The world is still set up for men, professionally. They are already default members of the club. As long as they know the back-slapping, secret handshake of it all, they can get in.

I am utterly over-simplifying, but you get my drift.

It’s taken me many, many years to accept my own authority and to stop apologizing for my own successes and intellect.

July 12, 2006 @ 12:55 am | Comment

Life is unfair, get used to it! (I’m being facetious; life is unfair, but that doesn’t mean we should just daintily accept the unfairnesses.)

July 12, 2006 @ 1:30 am | Comment

Dilbert had a cartoon a few years ago, where Wally. Dilbert, and even the intern could smell unnecessary work on a project. Alice, the female Engineer does not have this ability.

July 13, 2006 @ 8:05 am | Comment

Yes, but Alice has the Fist of Doom.

July 13, 2006 @ 4:16 pm | Comment

It’s simple. While male and female average intelligence (by whatever standard — IQ, for instance) are near identical, the respective standard deviations for average intelligence are significantly different.

So what happens is that while people who are exceptionally smart are likely to be men, people who are exceptionally unsmart are also likely to be men. In former days, most people could not go to university. The standard was much higher, which encompasses more men than women. These days, most people do go to university. Therefore, more women are encompassed than men. In other words, the average person can now go to college, and women in general are more average than men.

Ethnicity of course is a different matter. One which I shan’t go into.

July 13, 2006 @ 4:49 pm | Comment

In former days, women also did not have as many opportunities to go on to college.

I hesitate to bring this up because it’s going to sound obnoxious no matter how I say it, but I was in the gifted and talented program all through elementary school, jr. high and high school, including a more restricted program in high school. You had to test above a certain level on an IQ test or come close to that and get in by virtue of scholastic performance and/or teacher recommendation.

I can’t remember what the ratio of men to women was, exactly, but it was pretty close to 50/50. I also can’t remember which of my classmates were supposed to be the Super Duper geniuses. Those might have been boys, but I’m pretty sure a girl was among them as well.

What I do remember is that left-handed people (and I’m one of them) were vastly over-represented in the group – something like 40% of us, as opposed to the 10-15% you find in the general population.

I don’t deny there are gender differences, but I seem to recall that you only find them at the extremes – in other words, when you’re talking about the math gap, the majority of men and the majority of women perform along the same range. It’s only when you get into the extremes – the super-duper math geniuses – that you will find more men. And there are also female super-duper math geniuses – just not as many of them. But a woman at the top end of the math smarts scale is going to out-perform nearly everyone, male or female.

In other words, most people, men and women, are average.

July 13, 2006 @ 11:31 pm | Comment

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