The numbers are clear.
In 2015, females made up 56 percent of the undergraduate population in the United States: 9.5 million, to 7.5 million male students. Between 2010 and 2015, the female side increased by seven percent, the male side by four percent. The Department of Education projects that the disparity will increase in the next ten years.
In the post-baccalaureate population, the imbalance is worse. In 2015, women made up 58 percent of all the people pursuing advanced degrees (1.7 million), men only 42 percent (1.2 million). My field of English has been dominated by females for decades in terms of degree completion, with women earning around two-thirds of all doctorates.
Medical school enrollments still favor males, but only slightly (roughly 52 percent), though if we include advanced nursing students, equity disappears completely (the percentage of men pursuing advanced degrees in nursing is still below 20 percent). In 2008–09, for the first time, women earned more doctorates in all fields than men.
The trend holds in secondary education, too, where we find that girls enroll in far more AP courses than boys do.
The narrative of gender bias in the classroom against women lingers, however, especially in math, physics, and engineering, the last areas where men significantly outnumber women. (In the Department of Education report cited above, women were found to outnumber men in AP chemistry and to equal them in AP biology.) But overall, the evidence kills it.
Here, now, is a study that strangely reinforces the gender inequity problem. Social scientists in the Netherlands compiled reading scores of more than 200,000 fifteen-year-olds on the PISA exam. PISA is an international program that tests the knowledge and skills of fifteen-year-olds in countries around the world. Students in the United States typically score average in reading and science, and a little below average in math.
The research question for the study was: “How do certain school characteristics affect male and female achievement?” Reading scores served as the measure of achievement, because reading is foundational to achievement in all other areas. As the authors note, there is “an established female advantage in education.” What is causing it?
One theory is that achievement depends heavily upon non-cognitive factors, such as how well a student organizes his work, collaborates with others, and pays attention in class. Behavioral skills matter, not just intellectual aptitude, and girls beat boys easily on those measures.
This helps explain the main finding of the study, which is that in a predominantly female classroom, boys were affected more than girls were—and positively so. In their review of the data, the study authors conclude:
Our study found, in line with previous research, that boys’ lower reading performance in PISA was mitigated in an environment with predominantly female students.
Elsewhere in the study, the researchers put it this way:
The gap in reading scores between students in a school with more than 60% girls versus students in a school with less than 60% girls was larger for boys than for girls.
When more girls are in the classroom, the performance of boys improves, more so than does the performance of girls. Here we have a common-sense speculation as to the reason:
Girls possibly set a more successful learning climate in the schools and classrooms, to which boys were more susceptible.
When lots of girls are around, boys settle down and focus. The girls who did their homework diligently the night before raise the bar for the boys sitting near them. Their academic ambitions are infectious, at least for some of the boys. Their presence “mitigates” the lower reading performance of their male peers.
It is hard to determine what policy changes should be made if this finding holds up in further studies. I confess to being confused about what to do. In recent years, when I was looking for a school for my son, I sometimes worried about classrooms with precisely this female predominance. Now I know I was wrong. In spite of that, I’m still shooting for an all-boys high school.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.
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