• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Measures of Equity

Historians discuss backlash against hiring female and minority professors -- and emerging ideas about recruiting gay faculty.
January 17, 2010

I was surprised to read a comment by “mb” on Dana Campbell’s recent post, “Marketing Pink,” pointing out that women outnumber men at community colleges and stating in part, “I humbly propose that this missive completely misses the mark: The fact is, girls and women are doing just fine vis-a-vis educational achievement, it's the boys and men that are in trouble and who need the attention.”

Mb, and others who believe this, might want to take a look at the recently released Shriver Report on the state of American women over the course of the twentieth century.

Mary Ann Mason, who contributed a chapter on women in higher education, discusses the landscape in this week’s Chronicle.

Yes, women now attain more academic degrees than men, through the master’s level; half of all professional degrees; and nearly half of all PhDs. Yet, Mason reminds us, most of these degrees are in “softer” areas, not the higher-paying fields such as science and technology:

In K-12, girls receive less encouragement than boys in math and science. In high-school programs, they are channeled into certain service professions, like hair styling rather than computer repair. At the undergraduate level, women are clustered in education and health programs, while men dominate engineering and the physical sciences.

In graduate school, the segregation is even more pronounced, and fewer women still go on to careers in academic science. Even in professional schools like medicine, with gender parity in admissions, women are far more likely to train in the lower-paying specialties of primary care. At every level, the American educational system is failing young women by encouraging them to take a route that leads to lower pay, a route that will eventually limit them in providing for their families.

I am the mother of a 15-year-old boy, and I have had to do my share of advocating for “boys’ rights.” The catchphrase is not entirely accurate, of course; there have been girls in his classes who also exhibited symptoms of ADHD; who had trouble sitting quietly in the classroom without fidgeting, interrupting, dropping pencils, and drumming on the desk, but most of the kids who have had these particular issues have been boys. “I can’t wait until I grow up and get a job,” my son once told me. “I like to work—but I need to talk and walk around sometimes, and to go to the bathroom without asking.” My heart went out to him.

It’s unrealistic, I’ve argued, to expect a child who is bursting with energy to simply sit on it and take in a lesson or lecture. Our educational system, at least at the lower levels, is set up to accommodate stereotypical girls (such as I was): quiet, passive little adults who can sit still for long periods of time, who raise their hands before asking questions, who speak in quiet, modulated tones. The system doesn’t favor the most gifted or committed children, but the most docile—and those are not the ones with the greatest potential to make medical or technological breakthroughs.

After several years of experimenting with medication, hours spent in Resource Room and many tearful parent-teacher meetings, my son seems to have outgrown most of that childish impulsiveness. He’s off meds, engaged in the classroom, and does well enough in school. I think he was scarred by his early experiences of being made to feel wrong for his energy, though. I believe he will go to college and do well, but he could easily have been turned off to education in general. I am sure some boys are. In this sense, I agree that school can unfairly favor girls.

But this is only part of the picture. I don’t want to get into a nature/nurture debate here (maybe in a later column). It doesn’t matter if the gender differences (again, only statistical, with much overlap) observed by many are inherent, cultural, or the result of some interaction. But girls are rewarded for conforming, and are expected to do so. I had ADHD, too — but I didn’t call out (not much, anyway), or drum or wiggle. Instead, I sat quietly in the classroom, daydreaming, also not taking in much of the information, but because I didn’t cause problems I never got attention or help. Instead, once a year when the standardized test results came in, highlighting the discrepancy between my measured ability and my school performance, I got lectures on trying harder.

My son, and the other active boys (at least, the middle-class ones with concerned parents), will do all right. As previously discussed, many colleges are working to even the gender ratios, so he has a good chance of getting into a decent school, even if his grades aren’t as high as those of his female competitors. He is a star baseball player and hoping for a sports scholarship — and a number of schools are expanding their athletic programs to attract more boys. He is already a computer wiz, and is fearless in math and science, so when he graduates he’ll be on track to earn a decent paycheck.

His female classmates, though, are still being handed inferior pink microscopes.

Why are we not allowed to say that this is a problem?


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