GENDER DIFFERENCES ARE A MOVING TARGET. Even in the time I spent writing this book, the concerns, the conventional wisdom—even the gaps themselves—have all noticeably shifted. The boy crisis has ballooned, with fears about boys being kicked out of preschool, being unfit for university, or failing to launch as independent adults. Girls are surging ahead, led by a new crop of “alphas” who are bringing home the top academic awards and stomping over one another to get into the best universities (which in the U.S. continue to reserve about half their slots for arguably less deserving boys). At my own daughter’s recent middle-school graduation, with flowers wilting in the stifling gymnasium, parents fanned themselves while listening to the six student speakers, all chosen for their excellent marks and every one of them female.
But wait a minute: there were some other speakers at the steamy ceremony, all adults and every one of them—the principal, superintendent, president of the school board, and the eighth-grade head of year—male.
So have things changed or not?
I believe they have, and mostly for the better. In spite of all the fears about boys adrift, the truth is that their reading, writing, and maths scores are on the rise, their secondary school dropout rates are down (Figure 8.1), and more men are going to university (even if their percentage of the total university population has declined). While there are still many troubled schools out there, kids are learning more than ever. Everyone’s getting better educated; it’s just that girls’ improvement has been more dramatic. Boys are losing only by comparison to girls.
But there are important lessons from girls’ recent successes. First and foremost: mental and emotional abilities are not fixed. Second: they are not strongly determined by gender. For most traits, there is far more overlap than separation between the sexes, and plenty of room for learning or plasticity to raise achievement in any child. Expectations are crucial, and girls have done better as we’ve raised the bar for them.
Or rather, girls have soared as we’ve begun expecting them to be more like boys. Sports, maths, science, and leadership training have been good for girls. We still have farther to go—to boost girls’ spatial skills, technological fluency, and comfort with competition—if we want to narrow remaining gaps in fields like engineering and computer science and continue chipping away at the glass ceiling. Time will tell whether girls’ newfound academic successes extend to the working world, where progress has been much slower. In some major cities, women in their twenties are actually outearning men. But the next, and more challenging, step will be for women to maintain their recent gains through the child-rearing years, when the lack of support for working mothers derails many careers.
Or, as Princeton University’s president Shirley Tilghman put it, encapsulating the largest remaining hurdle our daughters will face as adults: “It’s the daycare, stupid.”
Then again, one likely fallout from young women’s surging achievement is that more men will opt to be the stay-at-home parent or primary caregiver in a family. Traditionalists will have a tough time swallowing this. Many people still can’t see men who choose this role as successful. But the truth is that fathers today are much more actively engaged in parenting than those of a generation ago, and many are not even apologetic about taking breaks in their careers to care for children. What looks like a lack of ambition may simply be men who are taking a broader view of achievement, as women have long done. This shift may even bode well for our national economy, if it means that professional ability rather than gender becomes the main factor determining which parent remains in the workforce.
Of course, most families will continue to need two incomes to support themselves, and boys’ current plight demands that we do more to help them develop the skills and intellectual confidence to succeed in school and beyond. Here is where girls’ recent success can be instructive. A hundred years ago, when women made up a mere 20 percent of university students and were rare in most professions, people believed in a fundamental—read “innate”—gap in intelligence and ambition between the sexes. It wasn’t until feminists started questioning this assumption and arguing that socialization, more than hormones, was limiting girls’ potential that things started to change.
Ironically, we are now doing the same thing to boys: writing them off as naturally less able to succeed in school. While parents of girls keep raising their expectations, parents of boys are doing just the opposite. We blame every lapse on boys’ lack of maturity, or lesser verbal skills, or minimal self-control, and lower our goals for their achievement and love of learning. Boys are being held back from starting primary school, labeled with attention or learning deficits, and excused for talking or reading late in the name of innate differences. In essence, boys are the new victims of gender stereotyping, even internalizing a “girls are smarter” attitude. Though boys proclaim this in a self-effacing, politically correct way, you can see how it saps their motivation. It’s hard to raise the bar if you believe it is already cemented in place.
But the truth, as we’ve seen throughout this book, is that sex differences are not nearly as large or as fixed as this new wave of essentialism projects. The truly innate differences—in verbal ability, activity level, inhibition, aggression, and, perhaps, social perception—are small, mere biases that shape children’s behavior but are not themselves deterministic. What matters far more is how children spend their time, how they see themselves, and what all these experiences and interactions do to their nascent neural circuits. That’s why gaps in areas like speaking, readiing, and maths are modest compared to the differences in areas we don’t formally teach, such as empathy, self-control, competitiveness, conscientiousness, spatial ability, and organizational skill. And yet, as we’ve seen repeatedly, there are ways to enhance every one of these, if we start early and create the opportunities for children to incrementally practice such important skills.
Clearly, we need to do more for boys at this moment, without forsaking the gains girls have made. But the solutions must come not from pigeonholing boys as hard of hearing, colorblind, immature, nonverbal, hyperactive, and disorganized, but by raising expectations and then creating an environment in which they can succeed. Beginning from birth, boys need more one-on-one verbal engagement, literary immersion, and opportunities for physical play, hands-on learning, and exploration of all types. They must be presented with small, achievable goals for concrete mastery: sitting still, printing their names, stating opinions, sorting seashells, adding fractions, reading books, and belting out songs.
Neither parents nor teachers can do it alone. Both need to hold to the same high standards coupled with firm structure and a deep love for boys. Throughout this book, I’ve suggested ways to keep boys more engaged and productive in school: more physical breaks, earlier reading and writing instruction, more male teachers, a broader range of literature, opportunities to compete, a blend of multiple-choice and essay exams, hands-on learning, and computer-based learning.
But we parents must also do our part: reading, talking, and singing to them; taking them to the library; organizing a quiet time and space for homework; fostering their outdoor, athletic, and musical pursuits; finding every opportunity to help them create, explore, and care for others. Everyone agrees that boys today need less medication, more outdoor activities, and, above all, decreased time in front of the TV, computer, Nintendo, and Xbox.