Redefining the Gender Gap

New research tries to shift discussion beyond enrollment rates to the actual experience of male and female students in college.
October 13, 2008

Both male and female undergraduates are more likely to have higher college grades as the percentage of female faculty members increases. The more time female students devote to exercise and sports, the higher their grades are likely to be. For male students, more time on exercise and sports has the opposite effect. Women are more likely to report growth in critical thinking during college if they attend private colleges than public universities.

These are among the statistics in a new book that aims to change the way educators think about the gender gap in college enrollments. With women making up solid majorities of undergraduate enrollments nationally, and more than 60 percent at many institutions, gender gaps are a hot topic -- but the focus has been on why female numbers are up and male numbers aren't. Linda J. Sax says that's only part of the equation.

Sax, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, says it is time to focus on the ways men and women experience higher education and why some experiences help either men or women but not both. The emphasis on the total enrollment figures hides real issues facing men and women in college, she argues in The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men, just published by Jossey-Bass.

The book's purpose, she writes, is to "add context to what have become oversimplified but popular messages -- that gender equity has been achieved, that women are an academic success story, and that men are experiencing an educational crisis. There is some truth to each of these messages, but they tend to convey the status of women and mean as a zero-sum game." The more nuanced reality, she writes, is that there are problems facing both men and women -- and educators need to acknowledge and respond to these differences.

While arguing for this type of analysis, Sax also acknowledges in her book that there are dangers associated with it. "There is a legitimate argument that the study of gender difference primarily reinforces gender differences," she writes. Noting that in many cases, differences among men and among women are greater than the differences between them, she warns against using such analysis to "overstate" differences or to stereotype students. But she goes on to say that there are enough notable differences that the benefits of this research outweigh the risks.

And that led her to examine the data from millions of students nationwide collected by UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program -- which is best known for producing the "freshman survey" each year, but which also surveys students at other points in their college careers.

One reason that it is important to examine these gender differences, writes Sax, is that the female college experience isn't consistent with the data showing female students doing better than their male counterparts academically. It's not that they don't perform better, but the women enter college with a significant confidence gap. On a series of factors, male freshmen -- who on average aren't as well prepared as females -- have much more confidence. Only on writing does the female self-confidence level outpace the male level (and reflect reality).

Self-Confidence of First-Year College Students by Gender, 2006

Academic Skill

% of Women Who Think

They Are Above Average

% of Men Who Think

They Are Above Average

Intellectual self-confidence 52.2% 68.8%
Mathematical ability 35.9% 53.1%
Academic ability 65.9% 71.9%
Writing ability 49.3% 45.7%

Of particular concern, Sax writes, is that women appear unwilling to believe or admit that "they are as competent as their performance would suggest," and that this lack of confidence generally appears to grow during college.

In looking at data on grades, Sax finds that there are some factors that help both male and female students achieve academically. As many have noted, levels of "academic engagement" promote academic success for all students. And both male and female students are least likely to do well at large public universities.

One finding in particular is striking, given the debates about affirmative action and the importance of diversifying the faculty, which was once overwhelmingly male. The data suggest a direct relationship, Sax writes, between institutions having larger proportions of female students and faculty members and all students -- males too -- performing better academically. While noting that the data do not suggest why this is the case, Sax urges researchers to explore the reasons for this relationship.

But at the same time, Sax also finds that male students tend to perform better academically when they have campus peer groups that support "traditional gender roles." And at campuses with a strong emphasis on the arts, male academic performance tends to suffer.

One of the areas of particular concern to Sax is self-confidence in mathematical ability, given that this skill set is necessary for success in so many science and technology fields. Some of the relationships she finds are not surprising -- for example that men and women both have higher confidence in math if they major in engineering or science fields. But the impact of major is stronger for women than men, which Sax says could mean "that continued exposure to mathematics is particularly important for female students."

One key area for women's mathematics self-confidence level, Sax finds, is the role of faculty. Female students' confidence levels go up more with positive interactions with professors, but there is also a correlation between female students who feel their questions are dismissed and declines in self-confidence.

At a time when many colleges promote the idea that they are teaching critical thinking skills, Sax also finds differences in the way male and female students report gains. Women are more likely to report gains if they attend private residential colleges and major in the humanities. Women who major in education tend to report little change in their critical thinking abilities, but men at campuses with many education majors -- even if the men themselves aren't in the major -- report major gains. Both men and women gain if they seek out ethnic studies or other courses that expose them to different kinds of people than themselves, Sax reports.

In all, Sax's book identifies 584 "college effects" that are not identical for men and women. She closes by urging other researchers to explore why these differences exist and what steps might be taken to improve the academic experience for men and women. And she notes that even where the data suggest similarities for male and female students (with both benefiting from interaction with professors, for example), the nature of those interactions may have differing impact. "Institutional efforts aimed at improving the college experience for both genders must consider the unique needs of each," she writes.


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