Opinion: What are we going to do about male underperformance?

What is our society going to do about underachievement by males? It is well documented at school level that girls overall significantly outperform boys. This is now repeated at University level. In non-science subjects admissions are large majority female. In nearly all subject areas females outperform males on average by up to 10% (more exaggerated in arts and social sciences). There is the same pattern in graduate jobs. If you look at the professions: medicine, dentistry, vets, law, the new intake is heavily female dominated. New members of barristers’ chambers, solicitors’ firms and accountancy practices are usually overwhelmingly female.

Look at staff photos for think tanks, campaigning organisations, charities and NGOs and newer recruits are mostly female. Usually they appear to be young, glamorous (my impression), at national level often Oxbridge, but the absence of males is noticeable. A conservative think tank on Europe surprised me recently when it had mostly male employees. (Well qualified, multi-lingual and cross-European).

Yes, the people running most of these organisations are overwhelmingly male; there are big issues about the glass ceiling and about why women are not better represented in higher ranks. (The judiciary seems the worst example – I often disagree with Brenda Hale’s legal judgments but, very talented as she is, it is absurd she is the only woman to have reached the Supreme Court). It is a fact though that from the mid-2000s, companies will have mostly women as the pool of talent to recruit future senior staff from. Close monitoring is needed as to what happens. (Do organisations do anything with equal opportunities monitoring data? That is another issue … ).

Why are women doing better? Others know about schools; my experience with University applicants, students and graduates is that the girls are usually more focused, more ambitious, and put themselves across more. I noted that female students always got work experience by cheekily going up and asking senior people for it. Boys often stood around being more shy (which I understand) or trying to look cool, or trying (often succeeding) to chat up the girls. They may have been less focused (on academic matters), and often not as well prepared.

It is good that women are now doing so well but an unrecognised social problem that the other gender is now being left behind. While discrimination against women still needs tackling, it cannot be good if members of the other gender feel passed over. It isn’t the Two Ronnies comedy sketch coming true, but is obvious that males who are not doing so well may be resentful or disillusioned and that could reduce their passion, enthusiasm and ability to contribute to improving society. Many high achieving young men will not achieve their aims and that is as much a generation of lost talent as those who graduated at the times of previous recessions, or the many women unfairly overlooked for promotion.

Work on equality has focused on women and ethnic minorities. Women and non-black ethnic minorities are often achieving well, and clearly ‘overrepresented’ among newer entrants in professions. As a matter of merit this is good. Tackling underrepresentation of women above mid ranking levels should not mean another gender issue is ignored. I don’t have answers, but the start must be an acknowledgment that there is an issue, and open inclusive debate about the implications. How males can be encouraged to reach their full potential. That is both a Liberal aim, and a good aim for all members of a modern progressive society.

* Kiron Reid is a member of the Liberator collective but not currently of the Liberal Democrats. He was until recently a University Law lecturer, and has extensive experience on careers and recruitment issues.

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27 Comments

  • is this issue not another “the patriarchy hurts men too” problem? Men/boys don’t HAVE to perform as well as women to succeed so why would they bother?

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Feb '14 - 12:30pm

    I’m not particularly fussed about it, I just want extreme feminists to be fair to them.

  • Alexander Matthews 11th Feb '14 - 12:53pm

    @Jennie, I often agree with what you write, but I think that comment is disingenuous at best.

    The statistics clearly show that the boys who are currently suffering from this problem are ‘well-connected’ middle males, but working (mostly white) males, often from more rural communities and smaller towns.

    Unless you are saying a working class male from a small, dying rural town is going to better connected and have an easier life than a well-connected, middle class lady who went to a top public school in the middle of London, I think can clearly tell that your point simply does not stand.

    No one here is arguing that the issue of sexism against women is not a problem; what they are trying to say is that we should not just concentrate on that issue at the expense of another growing problem.

    The real reason for this is that the traditional employment prospects for white, working class males have mostly dried up – and as such, many of them find themselves disconnected from society. The careers and way of life that their family had basically followed for the last 100 years has over the last 30 to 20 years rapidly disappeared.

    Many now simply do not know where to go next – or what to do.

    Much research into this issue has been conducted by sociologists and psychologists, who have found it is a mix of:

    – boys generally maturing slower than girls;

    – a rapid expansion in the amount of admin and clerical work (traditionally undertaken by women) leading to many young girls still feeling they have realistic employment prospects, whereas the jobs traditionally undertaken by males have disappeared;

    – many part-time retail employers often prefer to hire young females, thus giving them more experience of work and responsibility earlier, as well as the basic confidence boost one gets from being employed;

    These basic aspects of the issue run deep and create a whole host of other problems for young working class males.

    I agree that work to promote gender equality and ethnic diversity should continue with the same zeal it always has – if not more – but the issue of ensuring that such work benefits the working class, as well, is one we should not forget, even if those individuals are white and male.

  • paul barker 11th Feb '14 - 1:20pm

    Isnt this all based on the assumption that men should do as well as women ? Perhaps women are just naturally more academic ?

  • paula keaveney 11th Feb '14 - 1:22pm

    George raises a very valid point. I teach Public Relations in a media department in a North West University. Our gender ratio among the students is generally 1 man to 7 women. The animation course (same department) has the ratio the other way round. There are clearly women who’d be great animators and men who would do brilliantly at PR. But each has an image which reinforces gender stereotypes. The issue is how to present these type of professions as ones which are equally doable by women and men.

    Interestingly, the men who have taken part in the PR course have not suffered from the “standing back shyly” approach when it comes to work experience (that Kiron mentions) .

  • @Alexander: Sorry, the referring to people as “males” and “females” as though you are not one of them really bugs me, which might have made my initial comment more brusque than strictly necessary.

    When you talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of working class men vs middle class women you are in fact talking about intersectionality: no one individual is ONLY one attribute. For instance, I am female AND bi AND poly AND northern AND low income but also expensively educated AND cis AND high IQ AND able-bodied etc etc. There’s no point in playing oppression Olympics in those circumstances; yes, lower-income people have disadvantages, but men have advantages, and these things interact with each other such that it’s not simply a matter of adding weights to each side of a balance to get a total oppression score for each person so you can rank them.

    The fact remains that in toto women outperforming men in pretty much every area still does not equate to women gaining more whole life economic success, and framing this as a problem of male underperformance spectacularly misses the point.

    Every individual needs to be treated as an individual, in all areas of life, including education. Then male underperformance will be cured because each boy will be able to access appropriate educational resources for him as an individual; but also the systematic discrimination against women which means that despite consistently outperforming men they are not valued as highly will also be cured. Then, I suspect, we’ll both be happy.

  • Alex Baldwin 11th Feb '14 - 5:36pm

    @Joe:
    “In terms of career structure and security, medicine is surely a more rational choice than science. Do we need somehow to teach boys to be a bit more rational?”

    One big difference between medicine and scientific research (if that’s what you mean) as careers is that it is seen to be much easier to take a career break from a medical career to raise children and then go back to it (you will still be a medical doctor and qualified to work as one), whereas that is more difficult in research because that career relies on maintaining a constant output of work. I know several women who have taken clinical rather than academic career paths because they want to be able to take time out to have a family. Whether that is based on what they *want* to do (i.e. would they rather be working with the Dad at home… when I’ve asked that question they’ve said “no”), and whether it reflects reality (I know successful scientists who took time out for family) are two other questions.

    @Jennie:
    Though I agree with you that the interactions between these different factors are going to be non-linear (and so can’t be partitioned out after the fact), I think that the intersectionality idea as it is typically used tends to ignore the variance in experience even within these categories. There are still going to be significant differences between your life experiences and those of the next low-income expensively-educated northern high-IQ able-bodied poly bi ciswoman. Sure, you could keep adding in sufficient additional factors to account for this leftover variance, but in that case I imagine you’d end up just treating people as individuals. Where the statistics (I haven’t checked these for this article) do reveal population differences along a particular axis though it’s worth considering what it is about the education system as it is at the moment that might be letting boys down and whether there is some sort of help that they might benefit from. The best assessment of whether you’ve identified the cause is to try a potential solution and see whether it helps.

  • I think there are two issues here, firstly the role played by our education system and secondly the social dimension.

    My understanding is that our approach to teaching in recent decades has changed to use approaches that tend to favour girls rather than boys learning styles. To me this raises the question about our approaches to teaching, not that we shouldn’t use techniques that get the best out of boys and girls but how we can best use such techniques in the typical mixed comprehensive school. This should help to ensure that universities get the opportunity to actually pick the best and brightest.

    The second problem is more problematic, basically we have certain social groups facing the ‘unknown’, namely their future is different to their parents and their community gives them little real contact with this new world and hence what they could aspire to. I suspect that the best approach to dealing with this is encourage greater mixing of socio-economic groups and hence encourage social networking between these groups. Hence for example we don’t want large estates of low cost/council/social housing but more mixed development where people are likely to share fences and drives.

    So yes I agree with Kiron that we need to address male under performance, but suspect that at the same time we will enhance female performance and opportunity.

  • Alex Baldwin 11th Feb '14 - 9:34pm

    @Roland: “To me this raises the question about our approaches to teaching, not that we shouldn’t use techniques that get the best out of boys and girls but how we can best use such techniques in the typical mixed comprehensive school.”

    I think this is an important point. To tie it back to what @Jennie was saying about treating people as individuals, I can easily see it being the case that rather than there being preferred categorically male vs. female learning styles there may instead be a style that works for 80% of boys vs. a style that works for 80% of girls (assuming a simple dichotomy) with the remainder of each sex preferring the “other’s” learning style. At the limit, there could be a case where there may be an argument for a different kind of streaming than I have heard of being used before (by preferred learning style rather than by ability).

    My personal experience is of having gone to a (very successful) selective boys’ grammar school. I guess it could be possible that one of the reasons why they do so well is that they only have to tailor their teaching style to the preferences of a single gender. (I understand that its not so fashionable these days to think that the kids who pass exams to get into those schools are any smarter than the ones who don’t. =P)

  • Alex Baldwin 11th Feb '14 - 9:47pm

    Here is the closest thing I can find to a randomised trial for single-sex versus mixed schooling:
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-012-0157-1

    It uses data from the Seoul school system, which has a quirk where students are randomly assigned to single-sex or mixed schools (this controls for effects of the students’ backgrounds). Even after controlling for effects of the schools themselves they do find that students do better academically (in test scores and in terms of college attendance) if they go to a single-sex school.

    I am not advocating for an abolition of mixed schools in the UK (even if these results were decisive there are other important roles that schooling should play) but if there is a single-sex advantage then it must be worth looking at why that could be.

  • @Alex
    Thanks for the ‘trial’ lead. It has always been commented upon that single sex schools tended to do better than mixed, but as you indicate that might be more to do with intake.

    >there are other important roles that schooling should play
    Agree here, whilst I went to a mixed grammar/comprehensive, because of the particular group of students my mother taught, I was particularly aware that the local girl’s school had the highest level of teenage pregnancy in the area at the time…

  • Andrew Colman 12th Feb '14 - 11:47am

    I am getting confused by this one day we read about how girls are failing due to pink toys for example, now a few days later I am reading about how boys are failing!

  • There are undoubtedly many factors causing male underperformance. One I would like to see tackled was the subject, albeit indirectly, of a programme I saw nearly 25 years ago following the contrasting approach taken with 4 year olds in Kindergarten in several European countries. The UK class was prosperous middle class in one of the leafier outer suburbs of SW London.

    In one scene from the UK class a little boy called John had been asked to write his name. He had got most of a very wobbly “J” done and then collapsed in tears. An educational psychologist explained that he was one of the youngest in the class and also, as a boy, was also less advanced than a girl of the same age – so doubly disadvantaged. She went on to say that although he knew his name and could spell it, he was not physiologically capably of completing the task as he had not yet developed the fine motor control necessary. She said that what he should be doing was fun colouring to gain the motor control for later writing.

    So what he learnt that day was that school is a horrible place, one of ritual humiliation and failure and best avoided.

    The psychologist pointed out that this led to a testable hypothesis. If correct, boys would go on to significantly underperform girls in later education because, as faster developers, girls would, on average, be less impacted by too soon formal teaching. QED!

    The contrast was provided by a school in a dirt-poor working class district of Budapest (then newly liberated from communist rule). There they played a conga game. To start the children sat round the room and the teacher started a
    conga while calling a child’s name spelt phonetically: “Ju Oh Hu Nnn”. When the first child got it he/she shouted out the name followed a split second later by all the others catching on and John joined the conga. And so on until all were involved.

    The kids faces were shining and happy and they clearly had a ball. They learnt how to spell each others’ names but, more importantly, that school was fun and worthwhile, a positive experience.

    And to cap it all, comparisons of their progress showed that those working class kids experiencing a participative, fun approach massively outperformed the middle class children from the leafy London suburb.

  • Kiron – Trying to be reasonably brief led me to leave out part of the story. It very definitely was NOT a case of the teacher putting intentionally down a young child as it apparently came across to you. Rather, both the educational psychologist and headmistress (both very impressive individuals incidentally) were agreed that this was wrong and damaging to the children, some more than others, and were very distressed by that. The problem was that they were REQUIRED to do it this way by dictat from some predecessor of Gove (I forget who) telling them how to do their job with little reference to their professionalism as teachers. They were both clear that, were they to do things differently as they wanted to, they would soon have Ofsted (or whatever it was then called) down on them like a ton of bricks.

  • Stuart Mitchell 12th Feb '14 - 7:27pm

    @George Potter
    “The correct thing to do then is to ask ‘what can we do to end gender disparities between subjects?'”

    Why would we wish to? Equality should not mean homogeneity. I don’t see the problem with certain subjects or professions appealing predominantly to one particular gender, any more than there’s a problem with boys and girls liking different toys and colours (going back to a particularly bizarre thread from the other day). A much more real problem would be the issue of female-dominated professions paying lower salaries simply because they are female-dominated – that’s the kind of thing we should be stamping out instead of attempting to socially engineer a situation whereby men and women are indistinguishable.

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