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> Columns > Boston Globe > Boys vs. Girls in School: Battle Revisited

Boys vs. Girls in School: Battle Revisited

By Cathy Young | September 24, 2000

A few years ago, reports that girls were shortchanged by rampant gender bias in American schools caused widespread alarm and calls for action. Now some claim that boys are the real victims - girls generally do better on nearly every measure of school achievement, and men are the new minority in colleges.

Feminists argue that all children, especially girls, are hurt by gender stereotypes; conservatives argue that all children, especially boys, are hurt by efforts to blur natural distinctions. Both ideologies offer a blinkered view of reality. This was underscored by two back-to-back symposiums held on Sept. 15 at the National Press Club in Washington, one by the American Association of University Women, which spearheaded the "shortchanged girls" campaign in the early 1990s, the other by the conservative Independent Women's Forum.

The AAUW panel, "Beyond the Gender Wars," was obviously a response to rising concerns about boys - and also to charges made by Christina Hoff Sommers in her new book, "The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men," that girl partisans have distorted the discussion of gender issues in education (though direct references to Sommers were avoided).

The leitmotif of the symposium was that, instead of pitting girls against boys in a victimhood contest, we should work to make the schools better for everyone. Sounds good, but isn't it a bit disingenuous to trumpet girls' victimization and then shout, "Let's not play victim!" when boys' problems are mentioned?

s some IWF speakers noted, the AAUW played a key role in starting the gender wars it now decries. The AAUW angrily denies this. One of its panelists, Barrie Thorne, a women's studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, declared that gender equity is not a zero-sum game in which one sex wins at the other's expense - which is true. But the protestations that girls advocates never tried to deny or minimize boys' problems are less credible. The 1992 AAUW report "How Schools Shortchange Girls" called for programs to boost girls' achievement in math and science while warning against targeted efforts to remedy boys' deficits in reading and writing. Even at the symposium, some speakers downplayed the fact that women now get 55 percent of college degrees by suggesting that women need college to earn as much as male high school graduates (which may have been true 20 years ago but certainly not for the current generation).

The AAUW panel also remained steadfastly devoted to the dogma that gender equity requires equal outcomes in every field. Several speakers stressed that if there are innate sex differences, there is even more overlap - as if this couldn't mean that fewer girls will be drawn to computer science.

The IWF symposium, "The XY Files: The Truth Is Out There . . . About the Differences Between Boys and Girls," offered some fascinating information on the likely biological origins of sex differences. Psychologist Doreen Kimura of Simon Fraser University in Canada and independent researcher Patricia Hausman were careful to acknowledge that these differences are averages, greatly tempered by individual variation, but also stressed that even moderate sex differences may lead to divergent career choices.

At other times, unfortunately, the discussion lapsed into Mars-and-Venus generalizations - boys like exploring mechanical problems, girls like exploring feelings - and sweeping claims about the plight of young males in a feminized culture. Sommers rightly criticized educators who would run roughshod over children's preferences for sex-typical games or interests in the name of androgyny. Too bad she failed to acknowledge that pressure to conform to traditional gender norms (which still exists in our culture, especially for boys) can also be coercive and damaging.

One IWF board member who was not at the symposium - Judith Kleinfeld, a psychologist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and the author of two papers debunking claims about anti-female sexism in education - takes a more nuanced view and worries about exaggeration and stereotyping by both sides in the debate.

"We used to think that the schools shortchanged girls," says Kleinfeld. "Now the news is that schools are waging a war against boys, that girls are on top and boys have become the second sex. Neither view is right."

Boys and girls do have characteristic problems, and we need to be aware of what they are, but boys and girls are also individuals. Now, there's a good prescription for getting beyond the gender wars.

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