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Gender Equality in Education – A Zero-Sum Game?

Mike McTernan

EDST 6216

There has been much debate amongst media, academia, educators and parents on both the relative and
absolute advantages girls or boys possess regarding their education. The mere existence of such a
debate is testament to how much has changed in the educational landscape over the last 50 years.
Certainly in 1960, few objective people would have argued that boys were at any disadvantage to girls
as far as education goes. Given societal norms at the time, the disadvantage girls faced would rarely
come up at all. The tremendous strides that women have achieved the last several decades in access to
education, both at the primary and secondary level, are tremendous accomplishments and are
testaments to the activism so many women and men have displayed to make real changes in our society
over the preceding several decades.

Today, however, the strides that women and girls have made in regards to their education has
prompted many to question whether it is currently boys who are at a disadvantage in regards to their
education. At the same time, many still believe that women continue to be discriminated against as
well. To understand this apparent paradox, it important to define what people mean by an educational
disadvantage. Once the terms of the debate are clarified, it is possible to look at the problem from a
historical context to answer the question whether each side’s grievances can be addressed to improve
the outcomes for boys and girls simultaneously or can one gender only succeed at the expense of the
other? Put another way, are further improvements in the educational outcome of boys versus girls a
zero-sum game?

When speaking of boys, there are several measures that proponents of the argument that boys are
being done a disservice by our educational system point to. In today’s world, where so much economic
emphasis is centered upon obtaining a college degree, the disparity in enrollment rates between boys
and girls stands out as a warning signal for boy’s educational achievement. Figures compiled by the
National Center for Educational Statistics (2017) report that in 2018, 56% of those enrolled in post-
secondary schools were women, with projections showing no improvement for boys through 2026. This
is a complete reversal of the makeup of girls to boys in 1970, where the same NCES data (2017) shows
that only 42% of secondary enrolled students were girls.

Getting to college is one thing, but graduating is another. Here data also affirms how young men are
falling behind their female counterparts, especially amongst minority communities. The gap widens
further in college and amongst advanced degrees, meaning that more young men tend to drop out of
college or fail to pursue advanced degrees. The chart below from the NCES (2017) highlights the
disparity in associate and college degrees conferred in the 2013-2014 academic year. Minority
populations show the largest gap between male and female degrees.

Many studies have been done highlighting how boys fare worse in the classroom, both from a
behavioral and academic side as well. According to research done in 2006 “nationally, 42% of boys have
been suspended from school at least once by age 17, compared with 24% of girls” (Matthews, Ponitz &
Morrison, 2009, p. 689). The same study cites primary school data stating that four times as many boys
as girls are recommended for “remedial or special education services” and as well as boys having double
the chance of being held back a grade than girls (Matthews, Ponitz & Morrison, 2009, p. 689-690). In
another study, the authors found that between the 1980’s and 2000, the gap between the number of
girl student versus boy students reporting A’s almost “doubled from 3.2% to 5.4%” (Fortin, Oreopoulos
& Phipps, 2013, p. 2). Christina Hoff Sommers refers to US Department of Education data when she says
girls “get better grades. They have higher educational aspirations. They follow more-rigorous academic
programs and participate in advanced-placement classes at higher rates” (Sommers, 2000). By most

statistical measures, boys are being left behind academically, both in the classroom and their attainment
of higher education so important to succeed in today’s complex economy.

However, there is still a strong case made by many that girls are still the disadvantaged gender. Jerry
Jacobs sums up the main argument when he states “women fare relatively well in the area of access,
less so in terms of the college experience, and are particularly disadvantaged with respect to the
outcomes of schooling” (Jacobs, 1996, p. 154). Outcome is really another way of saying women are paid
less than men, even with the same level of education. While not the only benefit of an education, the
return from a monetary perspective avails itself to easy measurement so is the subject of much analysis,
even if it is not often the primary driver of why students attend college in the first place (Schultz &
Higbee, 2007). This disparity resonates through society all the way up to presidential politics. The
following chart, highlighting pay in Oregon (2016) is a prime example of the pay scale difference that
critics of the educational system point to when calling for more equity towards women. Educational
attainment alone does not close the pay gap.

Given the level of degree attained, nor access to one, is not the problem, the answer to the income
question must be found elsewhere. Looking at the figures, the real culprit is that women tend to focus
their educational pursuits on fields that are lower paying than men. While going to school in greater
numbers than men, women tend to study in majors that lead to lower paying jobs like in education
rather than engineering (Zafar, 2013). Gender inequality for girls therefore, is not about going to
college, or even graduating. It has become that the system is not connecting with girls in the correct
way to spark interest in the skills embodied by STEM to pursue these higher paying fields like computer
science or engineering. The system, according to critics, disadvantages girls as the inherent biases in
education favor boys over girls in teaching the knowledge that ultimately leads to the best paying jobs.
According to these critics, “the continued underrepresentation of women in these fields is an issue of
great concern to researchers and policy makers” (Su, Rounds & Armstrong, 2009, p. 871) and
subsequently, this is where resources need to be devoted.

There is context to the current perceptions of bias based on the evolving trends in society of the
preceding decades. The period beginning with the 1960’s has been one of profound social change
throughout the United States, and its impact on education for both boys and girls has been significant.
Historical events and their impact on the current state of educational achievement can give some insight
into answering the question of how to address these disparities today.

In the early 1960’s women made up the minority of college students, representing just 37% of all college
students (Goldin, Katz & Kuziemko, 2006, p. 133). There was very little if any discussion whether this
was correct or just. Women’s job opportunities were for the most part confined to the clerical realm,
nursing or in education. Most women were housewives as part of a nuclear family. The vast majority of
cultural reflections of this state of affairs like television, theatre and literature were supportive of this
hierarchy. All that changed in 1963 when the book The Feminine Mystique was published. The author,
Betty Friedan, argued that a vast number of women felt unfulfilled in their lives. Focused mainly on
college educated women, the book argued that women were not only capable of, but secretly wanted,
to be more productive and engaged in society (Friedan, 1963). The book was a bestseller and has been
widely credited with igniting the modern feminist movement.

That movement, joined by many women and men, made significant progress towards further rights for
women. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on gender as well as race,
creed and nation of origin. The National Organization of Women was created in 1966 to advocate for
change where they saw the civil rights of women being violated. While originally set up to focus on

employment discrimination, the organization, as well as others, pushed for further rights for women in
the educational sphere as well. By 1972, “shaped by the success of powerful civil rights policies that
used federal regulation to combat race-based discrimination and characterized by a newfound
recognition of sex discrimination as a systematic phenomenon—reshaped how lawmakers approached
the goal of ensuring equal access to higher education” (Rose, 2015, p. 159). The result was the passage
of Title IX, which Rose goes on to state that “by prohibiting sex-based discrimination in college
admissions, it revolutionized the gender dynamics of American higher educational institutions and
marked a dramatic shift in U.S. higher education policy. Occupying a brief paragraph in an otherwise
rambling omnibus bill, the pithy statute established that ‘no person in the United States shall, on the
basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to
discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance’” (Rose,
2015, p. 158). The act changed dramatically how higher education institutions fostered the admission
and success of females. In 1970, partly as a result of the burgeoning feminist movement, 42% of college
students admitted were women, a 5% increase over the preceding 10 years. After Title IX, women made
even faster strides towards access to higher education. By 1980, women were the majority gender
enrolled at US post-secondary institutions, and more impressively, the absolute number of women
enrolled increased 75% in the decade (NCES, 2017).

However, despite the tremendous gains in this one aspect of educational achievement, women were
still being seen as being systemically discriminated against in the educational system. In her 1982 book,
In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan characterized adolescent girls as being demoralized in the classroom,
and their disposition made them unable to compete for attention in a school environment that favored
aggressive, attention seeking boys that mirrored society as a whole (Gilligan, 1982). The plight of
adolescent girls became a much broader social policy question but remained a focus of educational
policy as well. By 1990, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) commissioned a study
conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. Released in 1992, the study, How
Schools Shortchange Girls, was a wide-ranging critique of the US K-12 education system, which claimed
that schools systemically disadvantaged girls in what was taught, how it was taught as well as what was
not taught (AAUW, 1992). Subsequent studies showed just how much classroom management changed
in these two decades to reflect the idea that girls were discriminated against educationally. Material
became more focused on topics girls liked. Discipline evolved to discourage disruptive behavior by boys.
More women’s studies programs were launched (Kleinfeld, 1998).

Politically, this narrative became enshrined in official action. In 1994, Congress passed the Gender
Equity in Education Act, which channeled millions of dollars to study and correct the bias against girls. In
1995, the US delegation to the UN Conference on Women “presented the educational and psychological
deficits of American girls as a human-rights issue” (Sommers, 2000). By 2009, with the emphasis on
equal pay, the Obama Administration set up the White House Council on Women and Girls, whose
mission was to “to ensure that each of the agencies in which they're charged takes into account the
needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they
support” (WH, 2009). Pay, as stated, became a central focus of the council, consistent with the shifting
emphasis on how to close the pay gap through policies that promote further girl participation in STEM
related areas. Today, there is much talk of Equal Pay laws to legislatively fix the educational deficit
women face.

Historically, the emphasis of the feminist movement and correcting injustice versus women and girls,
particularly in education, meant that how boys were treated was merely a derivative of the women’s
rights movement. While this is true to some degree as we shall see, over the course of the last fifty
years, important changes in society affected the structure of family and had an outsized direct impact on
boys and their ability to succeed academically. The current ability of all boys has deep historical roots as

In 1965, a relatively unknow Assistant Secretary in the Labor Department, stated in a report related to
implementing President Johnson’s Great Society, “the United States is approaching a new crisis in race
relations” (DOL, 1965). The author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would go on to be an influential
Senator from New York, raised alarm at the fact that at that time 23% of the children born to African
American families were being raised without a father. Research cited in the report warned against the
deterioration of black, inner-city families, with particular emphasis on male children, leading to a cycle
of poverty, affecting education, job prospects and an ever-increasing burden on society. The paper
called for direct action to counter the growing breakdown of the family unit. (DOL, 1965). Almost three
decades later, Moynihan recalled stating his fear in more direct terms.

“From the wild Irish slums of the nineteenth-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-
torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a
community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families,
dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority,
never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future--that community
asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder ... that is not only to be

expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved” (Moynihan, 1992, p.

While many conservatives subsequently blamed the Great Society directly for the breakdown of the
family structure due to welfare incentives that fostered single parent households, Moynihan’s own
critique of the Great Society was that despite his call to action to a situation that pre-dated the advent
of LBJ’s creation, the ensuing programs failed to focus at all on maintaining family structure as a
deterrent to poverty and equally importantly, never highlighted family structure as a social issue worthy
of concern (Moynihan, 1992, p. 59). Over the ensuing decades, as Title IX and related activism
successfully increased women’s access to higher education, the family structure across America
continued to change. The 23% “crisis” level of single mother African American households in 1965
stands at 55% in 2016. This is not just an issue with inner-city minority populations as it was in the early
1960’s. Today, all populations have a much higher percentage of boys being raised in single mother
households. If fact the entire population of children under the age of 18 being raised by single mothers
is 23%, the same level cited by the government for inner city black children back in 1965 (US Census
Bureau, 2018). Some of the increase is due to a higher divorce rate. Part of that trend is a beneficial
result of the women’s movement as wives became empowered women to leave loveless marriages, but
overall divorce in general has become more acceptable in society today than in the 1950’s. However, as
the table from The US Census Bureau indicates (2018), the largest increase in the trend is from never
married single mothers.

Multiple studies have linked boy’s performance in the classroom to family status. Non-cognitive issues,
such as attention span, behavior, and aggressiveness are factors that impair boy’s abilities to perform
well in school (Matthews, Ponitz & Morrison, 2009). One such study states that “family structure is an
important correlate of boys' behavioral deficit” and that “boys raised outside of a traditional family
(with two biological parents present) fare especially poorly” (Bertrand & Pan, 2013, p. 34). Importantly,
the effect of family structure has a much greater effect on boys than girls (Bertrand & Pan, 2013, p. 34).
As the percentage of boys being raised by single mother families has increased, according to these
studies, the number of boys exhibiting behavioral issues in school that would impair their ability to
succeed, would be rising as well.

By the late 1990’s the plight of boys in the classroom finally began to garner attention amongst
researchers. While a research report refuting the 1992 AAUW study, citing flawed methodology, was
published in 1998 (Kleinfeld, 1998), it was not until the publication of The War Against Boys, by Christina
Hoff Sommers, in 2000 that the notion that boys were in fact the gender in need of help academically
began to gain some credence amongst the population at large. Research began to focus on the various
factors which were impacting boys in school like self-regulation (Matthews, Ponitz & Morrison, 2009),
social image related differences towards work ethic and even the time spent playing video games
(Hadjar, Krowlak-Schwerdt, Priem & Glock, 2014). In a follow up to War Against Boys, Sommer states
that since 2000 “college admissions officers were at first baffled, then concerned, and finally panicked
over the dearth of male applicants” (Sommers, 2013). For many, the largest single gender issue
confronting colleges today is how to draw men to their campuses (Marcus, 2017). While more
understood, today male underperformance academically is still the more underappreciated “crisis.”
Despite a bipartisan proposal to create one, there is still no Council on Men and Boys at the White
House for instance (Sommer, 2013). However, there is enough evidence and scholarly work to attempt
to build upon solutions to not just confront inequities still facing girls, but also the burgeoning issues
that society is now acknowledging that face boys as well.

To help boys and girls to succeed academically, it is important to propose solutions that benefit both
genders. Part of today’s problem is some segments of society actively fight against the prospect of
improving either girl’s or boy’s educational outcome because they view it as an us versus them
mentality. The title of Sommers article, The War Against Boys, sums this sentiment up. A war has to
have a winner and a loser. If boys somehow start to “win”, it means girls “lose” by implication. Battling
long and entrenched male hierarchical dominance for so many years has left many women rights

activists justifiably skeptical any improvement in educating boys will not come at the expense of girls.
All of society should be pulling in the same direction to improve the educational outcome for all its
children. Solutions therefore, need to align everyone’s interest.

Somewhat ironically, a major step in that direction needs to be an acknowledgement that girls and boys
are not the same. Proposed solutions just might be more beneficial to boys, rather than girls, or vice a
versa. However, as long as the solution is not at the expense of either a girl or a boy, it should be
explored. This is difficult in the current environment, because to acknowledge there might be gender
specific solutions implicitly argues that boys and girls are different, which contradicts some gender
scholars’ insistence “that the sexes are cognitively interchangeable” and “any talk of difference only
encourages sexism and stereotyping” (Sommers, 2013). But research has shown, males and females
have different preferences and biases when formulating choices. Some boys do not go to college
because they want to join the armed forces in higher proportion than girls. Women value non-
pecuniary aspects of jobs much more than men, so while pay may be lower, the women may not
necessarily be making an illogical choice in going into a career that pays less (Zafar, 2013, p. 585).

The importance of that acknowledgement becomes clear when looking at data which suggests some
solutions that might be appropriate in the classroom. Research has shown “that men generally showed
more Realistic and Investigative interests as well as stronger interests in the STEM areas; in comparison,
women tend to have more Artistic, Social, and Conventional interests and to express less interest in the
STEM fields” (Su & Armstrong, 2009, p. 871). When thinking about the outcome solution for women,
given the research, it is imperative that one focus on how to influence choice, rather than just focus on
exposure as had been the case. Choice of majors dictate career progression as well (Jacobs, 1996, p,
176) so influencing choice at a young age is imperative to change gender career choices later in life. This
is especially true as currently, college choice for women is not driven primarily for monetary reasons
(Zafar, 2013, p. 584-585). If it was women would either chose not to go to college or focus on majors
that make more money after college. A solution that fits with the data would be to modify STEM
programs earlier to include more social and conventional curriculum. By understanding how girls make
choices, engaging in STEM topics in specific ways that are conducive to how girls make decisions, can
increase the likelihood of real interest in the subject. An early interest would benefit girls, some of
whom would continue to pursue it because they began liking the subject at an early age. This would be
additive, as long as the curriculum reverts to focus on more traditional STEM activities as boys would

still be drawn to the subject as it became more about “things”. Depending upon resource allocation, an
argument could be made to have parallel curriculums, at least when children are young.

Another solution that would be additive to both boys and girls, would be to focus earlier on behavioral
issues for boys. Educators need to embrace the research that shows boys have more disruptive
behavioral responses than girls (Hadjar, Krowlak-Schwerdt, Priem & Glock, 2014). Allowing proper
outlets for that behavior and providing subsequent coping lessons rather than punishing such antics,
would allow boys to correct some of the non-cognitive issues that affect their educational success.
Schools need to accept that figuring out how to cope is a learning process as well. The benefits for boys
later would be less expulsions, discipline and a better ability to focus. In addition, less disruption in class
over time would benefit the learning of both girls and boys as teachers could spend further time
teaching, rather than disciplining.

Finally, society needs to confront the changing composition of the family. In 1992, Senator Bill Bradley
(D-NJ), stated that society had “suffocated discussion of a self-destructive behavior among the minority
population in a cloak of silence and denial. The result is that yet another generation has been lost”
(Moynihan, 1992, p. 62). He could say the same today, except as shown, the changing nuclear family
structure is prevalent in all segments of society. Certainly, there are many fabulous examples of single
women doing an amazing job of raising boys. However, the overwhelming statistics point to the
difficulty in doing so, and the detrimental impact on boys who grow up in such a structure. When
analyzing the achievement gap, the New Jersey School Boards Association correctly points to poverty as
an impediment to academic success. The report again correctly connects the single mother family as a
structure where poverty is an all too often reality. However, in the recommendation, there is no
mention of tackling the primary determinant of the issue, which is family structure (NJSBA, 2017). The
costs are too great and the potential rewards so astronomical, that society cannot afford to “suffocate”
discussion about this any longer.

The discussion importantly cannot be about the perceived failures of single motherhood. It needs to be
about the success of a two-parent family. If the rate of boys attending college rose at the same level as
girls from 1985 onward, there would be 2 mm more boys enrolled in school today than currently (NCES,
2017). There would be millions of more highly productive members of the work force paying more taxes
and supporting social programs the last thirty years. While beyond the scope of this paper, it is not
difficult to imagine that rates of incarceration would be lower as well. The added resources available to
society would be a boon to both genders. A Washington University study claims that incarceration costs

top $1 trillion per year. The study also claims the children of incarcerated people who do worse in
school cost society $166 bb (Taketa, 2016). Added funds would be available to help break a cycle of
poverty that has persisted for decades. They could be recycled back into our schools, benefiting both
girls and boys alike.

There are many policy responses that can help address the issue. Penalizing dead-beat dads.
Incentivizing parents to stick together with tax breaks or subsidies. More family planning resources. Be
careful to not incentivize having children out of wedlock. Educate people to the real costs to children,
the mother and society. Sentencing parameters that acknowledge the costs to having the father
incarcerated rather than there to raise children. Promote role models of two parent families. There
have been too many proposals to substitute for male role models, most notably through the school
system, rather than address the issue directly. They have not worked. As Moynihan proposed way back
in 1965, use government to make family structure a goal of social policy (Moynihan, 1992, p. 59).

Nearly fifty years of societal change have left both boys and girls facing educational achievement gaps.
While the challenges faced by both are real and daunting, they are not insurmountable. A paradigm
thought shift to attacking the problem by promoting programs that potentially benefit both girls and
boys is necessary if all of society is to get behind necessary reforms and initiatives to tackle these
important issues. The rewards to such a change are substantial. A united approach can ensure that
rising educational achievement for boys and girls is so much more than zero-sum game.


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