The educational gender gap

A new battle is beginning in the ongoing gender war in academia.

Less than 50 years ago, men greatly outnumbered women in all colleges and universities, but since the ’60s women have pursued post-secondary education with fervor. For at least a decade now they have outnumbered men, not only in college admissions, but also in degree and certificate completion.

College newspapers from the University of Wisconsin Badger Herald to The Harvard Gazette are reporting on the growing gender gap in colleges and universities and speculating on the calamitous possible future outcomes of this trend.

But are the students, administrators and journalists crying out for this trend to be stopped out of genuine concern about diversity or are their worries vestiges of sexist attitudes?

A 2003 report, "The Growing Gender Gaps in College Enrollment and Degree Attainment in the U.S. and Their Potential Economic and Social Consequences" from the Center for Labor Market Studies Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., predicts severe consequences for allowing this development to continue unchecked.

The authors of the study begin by arguing that educating males will increase the aggregate supply of labor hours and therefore "reduce future labor shortages in high skilled occupations."

This statement is inherently sexist, as the authors are ignoring female graduates as sources for these possible labor shortages. Apparently, no amount of education is enough to make female graduates "high skilled."

Otherwise, this statement appears to be true of the population at large, and should be a reason to improve education for all Americans, not just males.

In fact, almost all of the arguments for increasing male enrollment in post-secondary education made by the authors of this study are arguments that are true for educated women as well as men: They are less likely to be un- or underemployed and they increase productivity in companies, thereby improving the economy and standard of living.

One telling argument details how much more money college-educated men make than their peers and how much they therefore put into the system through taxes and other means.

As obvious as this argument may be, they do have a point, since women, college educated or not, only make about 73 cents to every dollar made by men overall, according to the 1998 U.S. Census data.

The most equitable solution to this problem would be to stop pay discrimination (which is supposed to be illegal anyhow); the college-educated women would then be able to give as much back to the community financially as their male counterparts.

The real and morally weighted argument comes out near the end of the list the authors of this study supply: "…better educated males, especially past age 30, are more likely to be married and living with their spouses and children. They are less likely to father children out of wedlock. A better educated male population, thus, should help increase marriage rates, strengthen family life, reduce family poverty and dependency, and improve the future economic prospects of the nation’s children."

What the authors of the study are saying to us here is that the men should be in college so that they can get married and support families, because that’s their place in the world.

What’s really being revealed here is a continuation of the sexism that kept women out of secondary education from the start: It’s not their "place" according to "tradition."

That sexism is driving the fear behind the growing numbers of women pursuing post-secondary education is no surprise – the overwhelming majority of tenured professors, CEOs and top-ranking government officials are still mostly male.

There’s no doubt that it’s important to encourage men, especially when they’re still young, to pursue advanced education, especially for minority men, where the gender gap is most pronounced. But is giving even greater advantage to an already quite privileged and powerful sector of society the best way to accomplish this?

Michelle K. Howa can be reached at [email protected]