Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Real Boy Crisis

Two, seemingly contradictory, articles:

1) The New York Times reports:

The American Association of University Women, whose 1992 report on how girls are shortchanged in the classroom caused a national debate over gender equity, has turned its attention to debunking the idea of a “boys’ crisis.”

“Girls’ gains have not come at boys’ expense,” says a new report by the group, to be released on Tuesday in Washington.

Echoing research released two years ago by the American Council on Education and other groups, the report says that while girls have for years graduated from high school and college at a higher rate than boys, the largest disparities in educational achievement are not between boys and girls, but between those of different races, ethnicities and income levels...

The report points out that a greater proportion of men and women than ever before are graduating from high school and earning college degrees. But, it says, “perhaps the most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys’ crisis is that men continue to outearn women in the workplace.”

2) Then I read this piece in Business Week:

They eat from the same dishes and sleep in the same beds, but they seem to be operating in two different economies. From last November through this April, American women aged 20 and up gained nearly 300,000 jobs, according to the household survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, American men lost nearly 700,000 jobs. You might even say American men are in recession, and American women are not.

What's going on? Simply put, men have the misfortune of being concentrated in the two sectors that are doing the worst — manufacturing and construction. Women are concentrated in sectors that are still growing, such as education and health care.

This situation is hardly good news for women, though. While they're getting more jobs, their pay is stagnant. Also, most share households—and bills—with the men who are losing jobs. And the "female" economy can't stay strong for long if the "male" economy weakens too much.

My comment: This has been going on for decades--over a century, in fact. Women made up only 2.5 percent of the clerical workforce in 1870. But by 1930, women were 52.5 percent of all clerical workers. Women's education and employment jumped in every decade of the twentieth century, including in the 1950s. These trends continued right up through the 1990s and they continue today.

In many respects, the genders traveled through the twentieth century on separate tracks—but by the end of the century women were catching up, economically, socially, and politically. “It was inevitable that women would rise out of property status,” writes novelist and social critic Jane Smiley. “Capitalism wants every consumer, and ultimately distinctions among consumers according to gender, age, geographical location or ethnic background must break down as the market extends itself.”

Thus women’s accomplishments didn’t come at men’s expense. Women responded more quickly and nimbly to social and economic change and so they were able to benefit from the evolution of capitalism from industrialism to post-industrialism.

Meanwhile, men who were too invested in the status quo fell behind. Feminism did not cause these social and economic changes, but by preaching equality between genders, it tried to teach women and men how to live with them. Feminism also provided role models that helped girls and women adapt to new realities.

Now, I think, men have to do the same for boys, moving from rigid notions of manhood as breadwinning and domination to something more flexible and cooperative, from one economic paradigm to the next. It's that lack of new role models that constitutes the real boy crisis.


Backpacking Dad said...

There's a slick little piece of prestidigitory writing: "the report says that while girls have for years graduated fromhigh school and college at a higher rate than boys, the largest disparities in educational achievement are not between boys and girls, but between those of different races."

Do you see it?

The worry, for the "boys crisis" folks, is that boys are making up a smaller, or even minority, percentage of educational achievers.

So, what does the fact that the largest disparities in educational achievement are racial disparities add to the conversation?

Nothing. It's slick, and it seems to say something directly about the issue: "See, boys, don't worry. It's racial lines you have to watch." But that the racial disparities are the largest doesn't mean that boys aren't also making up a smaller, or even minority, proportion of educational achievers.

I don't know what the AAUW research itself says; but this NYT article doesn't say what it thinks it does.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I skimmed the report (and you can too, at http://www.aauw.org/research/upload/whereGirlsAre.pdf)

I did find it to be analytically disingenuous. They are very intent on spinning their results to show that girls' progress hasn't come at boys' expense, and that's fine. I agree completely. (Though I do wonder how many people actually claim that education is a zero-sum game in which boys are losing. Seems like a strawman; maybe I'm wrong.)

But they go way too far in asserting that everything is great with boys. Many of the results clearly show boys faltering--and if you look at racial/ethnic groups, some groups of boys are faltering more than others. It's not the apocalypse--much of the news is good--but I did see some cause for concern.

To what degree is it gendered? I'm not sure. In general, male behavior tends to fall to extremes, with men occupying both the very bottom and very top rungs of society in greater numbers. My intuition is that these results reflect greater inequality among men, even as women close the gaps. And, as I say in the post, I think boys and men are definitely straggling through a transitional gap between reality and self-image.