Taking a closer look at gender gaps in education

Richard Whitmire is an editorial writer for USA Today.

As the President of the National Education Writers Association, I have the annual privilege of handing over top awards won by education reporters from around the country. Now I’m thinking that privilege bears some responsibility, such as fessing up about times when education coverage dips below award-winning levels.

That happened Tuesday morning when I opened The New York Times and saw an article that did little more than regurgitate the American Association of University Women report making the dubious case that the “boy troubles,” as in boys falling behind in school and graduating from college at lower rates than girls, are a myth. Odd, I thought, a rare fumble by the Times.

Then I picked up The Washington Post, and there on page one was an article that did the same. At least this article had a dissenting view, but that’s not the point. Somehow, the AAUW had managed to pass off its advocacy report as research, not just to the Times and Post but the Wall Street Journal and other publications as well. (E-mail queries to the Times and Post reporters sent Thursday were unanswered as of this posting on Friday.)

When the surprise wore off, I had to smile: kudos to the public relations geniuses at the AAUW. Consider the odds behind their achievement. To succeed, the AAUW had to convince reporters that:

  • Gender gaps lie only between white and black, poor and non-poor and not within those groups. AAUW researchers had to know that with a simple check reporters would find huge gender differences, for example, among African Americans. How hard is it discover that black women graduate from college at twice the rate of black men? The gaps even extend to upper-class whites. Check out the research done by the Wilmette schools [2.6 MB PDF file] outside Chicago, one of the wealthiest and highest performing districts in the country.
  • Tests show that boys and girls score roughly the same. That conclusion is possible only by cherry-picking national survey data, which risks the possibility reporters might check state testing data where all students are tested. Those tests often show stark gender gaps, in many cases with girls swamping boys in verbal skills and at times edging them in math.
  • There are virtually no gender differences in the rate high school graduates enroll in college. Wow, so the boy troubles must truly be a myth! In that case, those pesky campus gender gaps must arise from benign causes such as older women more likely to return to college than older men. Truly a heart-warming story. Who doesn’t know of someone’s mom returning to college for a survey course in world culture? Problem is, a simple check of National Center for Education Statistics data reveals a 400,000-student gender gap among 18-19 year-old students. So much for the little-old-lady theory. (Even the professional education publications fell for that one.)
  • The AAUW provides unbiased research in the area of how boys perform in school. (Wait, does their mission statement even say anything about boys? Why are they dabbling in this?) Here, the group had to count on reporters being unable to recall the shaky “call out” research from its 1992 report, where girls were supposedly being shortchanged in school in part because teachers paid more attention to aggressive boys calling out in the classroom. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that entire report was riddled with problems. Here’s an interesting analysis of the AAUW’s track record as neutral researchers. (Full disclosure: At the time, I gave that report a full ride absent a single critical perspective. Hey, I thought I was doing my young daughters a favor).

    So, the AAUW pulled it off again. Reporters had forgotten about that 1992 report. No data were offered to dispute the notion that the boy troubles are really a race issue. No challenge to the college-going data. Everything, a clean sweep. I hadn’t planned on writing about the report, but when my editors saw the blowout coverage the report received they asked me to blog a debate editorial on the issue.

    At this point I have to declare my own bias. I’ve been writing about the boy troubles for years and I’m convinced they’re real, not only in the United States but in scores of countries around the world. You can view this as either making me prejudiced or informed enough to acknowledge a reporting fumble. Your call. From my perspective, this matters because the ideological chaff thrown up by groups such as the AAUW stands in the way of educators taking a serious at what’s happening to boys. Economists say the changing economy means men and women today (unlike in the past) get exactly the same benefits from a college degree and therefore should be graduating at the same rate. Only they aren’t. By 2015 women will earn, on average, 60% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. Something’s not right here; that’s a lot of men not even getting to the economic starting line with that all-important diploma.

    My final take the AAUW’s coup: short-term victory, long term repercussions.

  • About richard whitmire


    1. says:

      Well said Richard!

      (And I am glad you owned up to a certain 1992 editorial that opened “Girls are clearly not the teachers’ pets in public schools” and ended “Just think what 51% of the population could achieve given an even start.” Written by another tool of the AAUW publicity machine, for sure.)

      – Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian

    2. says:

      “it’s not all bad; turns out women are earning 77 cents for every dollar men make”. pretty much says it all. if your objective look at the world suggests that women have an advantage over men, well, gee, one can only wonder what color the sky is in your world.

    3. well,
      what exactly is your point ?
      sorry for asking..


    4. says:

      As an education reporter I am amazed at the various organizations that exist locally and nationally for girls. The organizations to their credit still push to move girls up in math and science. But research, test scores and drop out rates shows boys need the help now in math, science and everything else. In our politically-correct world, I wonder when or if an organization (American Association of University Men?) can rise up to help boys?
      On a side note the American Association of University Women should be ashamed of itself for promoting bias, false data while billing itself an “education” group. The group should be basking in the glory of accomplishing its mission of enlightening girls and now be helping boys.

    5. says:

      To the person who cited the “pay gap,” that myth has been debunked over and over again. It is only a snapshot of yearly incomes that doesn’t account for overtime (which men work about 90% of), type of work, number of hours, etc. When all those factors are considered there is no pay gap and in fact women outearn men in many fields including science fields like engineering. In “Why Men Earn More” Warren Farrell showed there are 25 work-life choices men and women make that lead to men earning more and women having more balanced lives. Those choices include hours, commute distances, danger, etc. In surveys, men prioritized money while women prioritized less hours, flexibility, shorter commutes, and factors conducive to their choice to be primary parents, a choice men don’t have nearly as much. Men make 92% of occupational deaths, and those working class jobs pay a bit more than office jobs which women choose more. There are many factors that the “pay gap” doesn’t account for. When you really look at it, the pay gap is a reflection of the fact that women have more options than men. Over 60% of female USC graduates opted out of the work force over time, because they choose to stay home, and option men hardly have. That’s why never-married childless women outearn their male counterparts, and in NY, NY women are outearning men because there’s a higher concentration of never married childless people.

      Here are numerous article refuting the “pay gap” lie.

      Prof. June O’Neill, Ph.D., former director of Congressional Budget Office, refutes the significance of the “pay gap” in “The Gender Gap in Wages, circa 2000” (5/03), American Economic Review, http://money.cnn.com/2007/06/04/magazines/fortune/muphy_payact.fortune/index.htm


      ABC News: “Is the Wage Gap Women’s Choice? Research Suggests Career Decisions, Not Sex Bias, Are at Root of Pay Disparity”




    6. says:

      Richard Whitmire says that there are huge gender gaps among African Americans. In fact, girls do somewhat better, but not all that much. In new York, for example, according to a gates foundation study, in New York, among Blacks, 33 percent of males and 43 percent of females graduate. Very bad results for both sexes.

      he also says there is a big gender gap among high income whites, favoring girls. But the gates study, done by the Manhattan Institute, finds
      that while it is true that among whites, girls are more likely to graduate than boys, the gap is relatively small, only five percent. Among Asians, the gap is even smaller, some three percent.

      Large scale federal studies are the best indicator of what’s happening across the board. You can pretty much find whatever you want looking at smaller studies.

      The Gold standard study in this area is “The Truth About Boys and Girls” from the think tank “Education Sector.” The author of this report, Sara Mead, just posted this to the new republic blog:

      “I just saw your post on the new AAUW study; since you had questions
      about its objectivity (which is fair, given the documented problems with
      their 1992 “how schools shortchange girls” report), I wanted to direct you
      to a report I wrote for Education Sector, a nonpartisan education policy
      think tank, two years ago. Using federal data, I found basically the same
      things the AAUW report does: many key educational outcome indicators are
      improving for both boys and girls; elementary school aged boys, in
      particular, are doing as well as or better than ever academically; to the
      extent that gender gaps favoring girls exist, they happen because girls have
      made significant gains, not because boys’ achievement has declined; and
      achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and income and much larger and more
      significant than gender gaps.”

      The truth is that there is no new and dramatic Boy crisis. There is, however, a Some Boys crisis. Inner city black and Hispanic boys and white rural boys are truly in crisis. Working class white boys also often have academic problems. Suburban white and Asian boys are doing quite well. The fact that girls fill some 55 percent of college seats is
      hardly reason for panic.

      There does not have to be a “Crisis” to make us pay attention to boys’ problems where they exist, and to try to fix them. A bigger crisis is that
      American students, boys and girls, lag badly behind their peers in Europe and Asia in many areas.

      Pitting boys against girls, as some have done (See Christina Hoff Sommers “The War Against Boys”) just harma all kids–Caryl Rivers, professor of Journalism, Boston University.