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Prof. Judith S. Kleinfeld
Women's advocacy groups have waged an intense media campaign to
promote the idea that the "schools shortchange girls. " Their goal is to
intensify the image of women as "victims" deserving special treatment
and policy attention. Their sophisticated public relations campaign has
succeeded. The idea that girls are victimized by the schools has become the
common wisdom, what educated people just assume to be true.
But the idea that the "schools shortchange girls" is wrong and
dangerously wrong. It is girls who get higher grades in school, who do
better than boys on standardized tests of reading and writing, and who
get higher class rank and more school honors. It is young women who
enter and graduate from college far more frequently than young men. It
is women who have made dramatic progress in obtaining professional,
business, and doctoral degrees. The great gender gap of the 1960s in
advanced degrees has almost closed, especially in the professional fields
to which ambitious women aspire. In the view of elementary and high
school students, the young people who sit in the classroom year after year
and observe what is going on, both boys and girls agree: Schools favor
girls. Teacher think girls are smarter, like being around them more, and
hold higher expectations for them.
This does not mean that males and females are equal on every
educational outcome. In some areas, females do better than males, and in
other areas, males do better than females. Females lag behind in two
academic areas: mathematics and science achievement. Females also lag
slightly behind males in attaining professional, business, and doctoral
degrees. But males lag behind females in two other academic areas and
by far wider margins: reading achievement and writing skills. Males are
far more apt to end up at the bottom of the barrel in school, placed in
special classes for students with learning disabilities. Males are also more
apt than females to believe that the school climate is hostile to them, that
teachers do not expect as much from them and give them less
encouragement to do their best.
The myth that the schools shortchange girls is dangerously wrong because
it has diverted policy attention from the group at genuine educational
risk---African-American boys. This is the group that scores lowest on
virtually every educational measure. This is the group where an
enormous gap does exist between males and females. But the African
American gender gap favors females, who are pulling far ahead of males
in college graduation rates and in obtaining professional degrees.
Where did the notion that the schools shortchange girls come from? And
how do advocacy groups manage to convince people that it is girls who
are victimized in the schools? What data do they use and what data do
In this paper, I examine the charges made in a highly publicized report,
How Schools Shortchange Girls, published by the American Association
of University Women (1992). I show how the findings in this report are
based on a selective review of the research and how findings contrary to
the report's message were suppressed. These contrary findings indeed
appear in studies the AAUW itself commissioned, but the AAUW not only
did not include these findings in their media kits but made the data
difficult to obtain.
To find out what is actually going on, how boys and girls do fare in the
schools, I review the best available information on a wide variety of
strong measures: school grades, class rank, honors and prizes in
academic competitions, scores on standardized achievement tests, college
entrance and graduation rates, and attainment of professional and
doctoral degrees. To locate this information, I often had to do new
analyses of government reports, which also emphasize the "women as
victims" viewpoint---showcasing the problems but not the progress. I
examine as well charges that the schools shortchange girls based on weak
measures, the view that girls are silenced in the classroom and suffer a
dramatic loss of self-confidence at adolescence. I show that the research
on which these charges are based have in some instances disappeared and
in other instances have been distorted to make a political point. Research
on gender differences in class participation, school climate, and self
confidence provides a welter of conflicting findings, sometimes favoring
girls, sometimes favoring boys, and sometimes showing no gender
differences at all.
The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) put itself on the
political map through its highly publicized 1992 report: How Schools
Shortchange Girls. The media trumpeted the message around the world:
In the schools, as in so many other areas of life, females are victims. Girls
are silenced in the classroom, suffer a decline in self-esteem at
adolescence, and fall far behind boys in such crucial subjects as science and
mathematics. As the AAUW Executive Summary declares:
The educational system is not meeting girls' needs. Girls
and boys enter school roughly equal in measured ability.
Twelve years later, girls have fallen behind their male
classmates in key areas such as higher-level
mathematics and measures of self-esteem. Yet gender
equity is still not a part of the national debate on
educational reform. (p. 1)
The AAUW provides a glossy order form for this report. The form
features a photograph of a classroom peopled with attractive girls and
boys from many groups---an African-American girl, an African-American
boy, an Asian girl, a Caucasian boy. The irony is that there is one child in
this photograph whom the schools are shortchanging, but this child is not
a girl. This child is the African-American boy. This is the group in need of
creative policy initiatives.
What is worth remembering is that boys used to be the group considered
shortchanged by the schools. The idea that the schools shortchanged boys
was part of the common wisdom through the 1970s. As Brophy (1985)
Claims that one sex or the other is not being taught
effectively in our schools have been frequent and often
impassioned. From early in the century (Ayres, 1909)
through about 1970 (Sexton, 1969; Austin, Clark, &
Fitchett, 1971), criticism was usually focused on the
treatment of boys, especially at the elementary level.
Critics noted that boys received lower grades in all
subjects and lower achievement test scores in reading
and language arts. They insisted that these sex
differences occurred because the schools were "too
feminine" or the "overwhelmingly female" teachers
were unable to meet boys' learning needs effectively.
As this paper documents, girls surpass boys in some academic areas and
boys surpass girls in other areas. Indeed, a far stronger case could be
made for the view that "the schools shortchange boys" than the other way
around. After all, it is boys who get consistently lower grades in school
even though they score just as high or higher than girls on many
standardized tests of achievement. This is strong evidence of bias against
boys. It is boys who end up far more often than girls in special education
classes for students with serious learning problems. It is males who are
falling behind in college attendance. As recent survey research shows, it is
boys , especially minority boys, who believe that teachers are not as apt to
encourage them to achieve their goals or do their best (Harris, 1997, pp.
The AAUW has done women and the nation a service in drawing
attention to the gender gap in science and mathematics and in
encouraging an array of policies and programs designed to boost female
performance in these fields. But the schools need to be equally concerned
about the problems of boys. Boys mature more slowly than girls, for
example, in areas like verbal skills. Late-maturing boys can be
stigmatized as poor learners and assigned to "low-ability groups in the
primary grades, especially in reading" (Halpern, 1997, p. 1098). Boys are
also more active than girls and more difficult for teachers to handle.
"Bright, bored, and rambunctious boys" have been diagnosed with
attention deficit disorder and placed on drugs like Ritalin (Zachary, 1997,
Neither girls nor boys nor the nation itself are served by politicized
research and "noble lies." Major assertions in the AAUW report are based
on research by David and Myra Sadker that has mysteriously
disappeared. Evidence which contradicts their thesis that the schools
shortchange girls is buried in supplemental tables obtainable only at great
difficulty and expense. Such shady practices undermine public
confidence in social science research. This damage done by the AAUW
report will have repercussions that last far beyond the immediate issue of
whether either girls or boys are shortchanged in the school.
Gender Differences in School Grades, Rank in Class, and Honors
If schools as an institution were shortchanging females, such gender
discrimination should be easy to spot. Schools give clear and measurable
rewards: grades, class rank, and honors. These rewards are valuable in
gaining admission to a selective college or graduate school and in gaining
a desirable job. Which group---males or females---receives a
disproportionate share of the school's rewards?
From grade school through college, females receive higher grades and
obtain higher class ranks. They also receive more honors in every field
except science and sports.
Grades: That females receive higher grades in virtually every subject is
undisputed. In reviewing the literature on gender differences in cognitive
tests, for the flagship journal of the field, American Psychologist, Halpern
(1997, p. 1102) points out that "higher grades in school, all or most
subjects" is an area of unquestioned female advantage. Another recent,
comprehensive review of the research literature on gender differences in
school performance comes to the same conclusion:
Data from a wide variety of sources and educational
settings show that females in all ethnic groups tend to
earn higher grades in school than do males, across
different ages and eras, and across different subject
matter disciplines. Many researchers in past times and
today consider this to be such an obvious fact that they
treat it as axiomatic....Modern reviews of the subject
are unanimous in their finding of higher grades for
females (Dwyer & Johnson, 1997, pp. 128-129).
The female advantage in grades, while consistent, is not necessarily large.
Among high school students who took the ACT in 1992, for example, the
overall female GPA was 3.00; the overall male GPA was 2.89 (Willingham
& Johnson, 1997, Table S-14). Even in mathematics and in science, female
high school students who took the ACT got higher grades than males.
In college, females also receive higher grades than males, a pattern
evident in national samples from the 1970s that continues into the 1990s .
Table 1 shows the pattern.
Table 1: Women Get Higher College Grades But Differences Are Small
Source: From Women at Thirtysomething (p.114), by C. Adelman, 1991,
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
|Major ||Women's GPA ||Men's GPA|
Class Rank and Honors: Since girls receive higher grades in school, they
should also surpass boys in class rank. This is exactly what happens.
Examining gender differences in high school class rank and honors in a
nationally representative sample from the 1970s, Adelman (1991, p. 3)
makes this point, "No matter how one slices the high school class of 1972,
women's mean class rank exceeded that of men by a minimum of 10
points." Caucasian women attained, on the average, the highest class
rank (67th percentile), while African-American men attained, on the
average the lowest class rank (44th percentile). African-American women
ranked far higher (56th percentile) than African-American men.
The same pattern of female advantage in grades and honors shows up in
the 1990s, in a nationally representative longitudinal study of the high
school class of 1992 (NELS Second Follow-up, cited in Dwyer & Johnson,
1997, p. 139). In the academic arena, high school girls outdistanced boys
in making the honor roll, in getting elected to a class office, and in
receiving writing awards and other academic honors. In the academic
arena, boys outdistanced women in vocational-technical honors and in
awards in science and mathematics competitions.
While males are still ahead in gaining mathematics and science honors,
females are making strong gains. From 1995-1998, close to 40 percent of
the winners of the most prestigious science competition, the Westinghouse
Science Talent Search, were female (Science Service, 1998). The
Westinghouse Science Talent Search requires high school students to
complete a project in science, mathematics, and engineering and submit a
report communicating the results. The work goes on over many months,
often with the assistance of a parent, teacher, or other researcher. The
contest is notable for producing winners who later go on to win a Nobel
Prize. Westinghouse finalists from the 1940s through the 1970s were
overwhelmingly male. The number of females among the top 40 finalists
has increased since the 1980s and is approaching parity (Table 2).
Table 2: Females Are Increasing Among Westinghouse Science Finalists
Source: Science Service, Westinghouse Foundation, 1998.
|Years||Females In Top 40 Finalists |
Gender Differences in Standardized Tests of School Achievement
Even though girls surpass boys in school grades, the schools might still be
shortchanging girls if they are getting good grades but not learning as
much as boys. Grades, after all, are based not only on how much students
know but also on conformity to institutional demands, such as whether
students follow the teacher's directions and turn in their assignments on
time. Scores on standardized achievement tests provide a measure of
school achievement less influenced by such extraneous influences as
willingness to obey the teacher's directives.
On standardized achievement tests, females typically surpass males in
writing ability, reading achievement, and certain other verbal skills while
males surpass females in science and mathematics. In the general
population of males and females, however, sex differences in
achievement tests are typically small---except for the big female
advantage in writing.
The research literature on sex differences in achievement test scores is
voluminous. Various studies use various standardized tests, for example,
the California Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and the
tests developed by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Standardized test information is available in many different years in
many different locations.
To make sense of this mass of information, contemporary researchers use
a statistical technique called a "meta-analysis." (For those readers who
prefer, a simpler version of the same basic pattern discussed in this section
begins on page 15.) Essentially this technique offers a simple way to
combine the findings from many different standardized tests, given to
different samples in different years, and using different scoring systems.
A statistical measure called the standard mean difference (D)
summarizes and communicates the results across these studies. This
statistic is easy to understand. Basically, "D " is the average difference
between the test scores females receive and the test scores males receive
in an area like mathematics achievement. "D" is calculated simply by
subtracting the male mean across all these tests from the female mean
across all these tests, which yields the average difference in test scores
between females and males. This difference is then divided by a measure
of the variability (average standard deviation) in the test scores of
females and males.
Using D allows researchers to combine studies and to come up with a
strong estimate of the average difference between males and females. If
females and males do not differ on the measure of intellectual
performance, then D is zero. A positive D indicates a difference in
favor of females. A negative D indicates a difference in favor of males.
By convention, a D of .20 to .49 is considered a "small" difference; a D of
.50 to .79 is considered to be a "medium" difference; and a D of .80 or
higher is considered to be a "large" difference.
In a comprehensive review of the literature on gender differences on
standardized test scores, Willingham, Cole, Lewis, & Leung (1997) bring
order to this complex and disputed mass of studies. They have created a
data set focusing on the performance of large national samples of 12th
grade students on standardized tests, with emphasis on the National
Assessment of Educational Progress. The core of their data base consists
of about 60 achievement tests grouped into 10 different academic
categories, such as 1) Verbal-writing, 2) Verbal-reading, 3) Math
concepts, and 4) Natural science.
In most academic areas, sex differences in achievement, where they exist
at all, are "small" (Table 3). Females surpass males in writing skills,
language use, reading, and study skills. Males surpass females in
mathematics, science, and geopolitics, but the differences are too slight to
reach the accepted criterion of a "small" difference except in geopolitics.
The only gender difference approaching "medium size" occurred in
writing skills, which favored females.
Table 3: Standardized Achievement Test Scores Are More Apt to Favor
Females But Most Differences Are Small : National Samples of Students
at Grade 12
Source: Adapted from Supplement to Gender and Fair Assessment (pp. 58-59) by
W. W. Willingham and L. M. Johnson, 1997, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
|Writing|| .57 ||(.018)||Females||Medium |
|Language Use|| .43 ||(.022)||Females||Small|
|Reading|| .20 ||(.011)||Females||Small|
|Vocab/Reasoning|| .06 ||(.012)||---||---|
|MathComput.|| .18 ||(.030)||---||---|
|Social Science|| .02||(.026)||---||---|
|Study Skills|| .20||(.022)||Females||Small|
In short, on these comparisons, across many different tests, not much
difference occurs between males and females in achievement in
standardized tests in the general population. Most gender differences are
small and favor females more often than males. The only gender
difference of medium size, writing abilities, favors females.
A simpler way of looking at the same, basic pattern is to examine male
and female scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress,
tests given to a nationally representative sample of students to examine
American students' performance in the four basic skill areas: reading,
writing, mathematics, and science. At the end of high school, females
vastly surpass males in writing abilities and reading abilities. Males
surpass females in science and mathematics, but the male advantage in
these subjects is far smaller than the female advantage in reading and
Table 4: The Gender Gap Favoring Females in Reading and Writing Is
More than Twice the Size of the Gender Gap Favoring Males in Science
Source: From Digest of Education Statistics 1997 (Tables 107, 113, 118, and 126),
National Center for Education Statistics, 1997, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Progress: End of
To put these sex differences in perspective, consider the difference in each
subject between Whites and Blacks. At age 17, in reading, Whites surpass
Blacks by 29 points; in writing by 32 points; in mathematics by 27 points
and in science by 47 points (National Center for Education Statistics
[NCES], 1997 b, Tables 107, 113, 118, 126). The enormous achievement
gaps in America concern race, not sex.
Sex differences on achievement tests are small among high school males
and females in general. But let us ask a different and equally significant
question: Where is the talent? Do males or females dominate the top of a
field? These are the conspicuous achievers who create cultural images of
success. Among the top students in a subject area, a different picture
Among students at the top of the heap, gender differences in
achievement test scores can be large and consequential even when only
slight differences exist in the general population. In the top 10 percent of
high school students, females surpass males in writing ability and reading
achievement while males surpass females in mathematics, geopolitics,
and science performance.
Using the same database combining the achievement test scores of 12th
grade students, Willingham et al. (1997, pp. 80-83) examined the sex
distribution among the top 10 percent of the students. The top 10 percent
in a high school class is not a very select group, not the group that is apt to
achieve national prominence in an area. Still, we can see the outlines of a
gender problem emerging. In this top group, even in high school, males
dominate the top group in science (7 out of 10); mathematics (almost 6 out
of 10); history and civics (6 out of 10). Females dominate the top group in
writing (7 out of 10) and in reading (6 out of 10). In other select groups,
such as students who take the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the
mathematics and science Advanced Placement Tests, men also score
substantially higher than women, especially in areas like physics (Bae &
In short, differences in the performance of males and females in the
general population are small, even in science and mathematics. But more
males end up at the top in science and mathematics, among the most
conspicuous achievers. Why?
One important reason has less to do with bias than with biology---the
greater variability of males on many human characteristics. Most of us
have in our minds an image of the bell-shaped curve that comes from IQ
tests---a voluptuous bell curve with a generous middle and spreading
extremes. We do not stop to consider that bell-shaped curves can take
other forms. A bell-shaped curve with exactly the same average, for
example, can be high and peaked. The bell-shaped curve in a male
population tends to take the voluptuous shape with more males at the
extremes; the bell-shaped curve in a female population tends to be high
and narrow with fewer females at the extremes. The illustration below
shows two such bell-shaped curves, exaggerated to make the point that
two populations with the exactly the same averages can nonetheless have
very different numbers of people at the extremes.
On many characteristics, the bell-shaped curve among males takes the
voluptuous form: More males appear among the top talent and more
males appear at the bottom of the barrel. As a consequence, males more
often end up in the ranks of conspicuous achievers. As Willingham &
Cole (1997) point out:
Greater male variability tends to work to the advantage
of males at the top of the score distribution...More
variable male scores exaggerate [emphasis added] any
male advantage at the top....If male scores are more
variable, there is less female advantage at the top than
would ordinarily result from a higher female mean.
In short, greater variability among males means that more academic
stars, those at the extreme right end of the normal curve, are apt to be
males. But this variability also means that more males will be at the
extreme left of the normal curve, academic duds. This is exactly what
Gender Differences in Special Education and Learning Disabilities
Males More Often Appear At the Bottom of the Barrel in Schools, Labeled
as Impaired and Assigned to Special Education Classes
The over-representation of males in special education classes and in
virtually every other category of emotional, behavioral, or neurological
impairment is undisputed. In reviewing cognitive tests that typically
show sex differences, Halpern (1997) summarizes this research:
Males are overrepresented at the low-ability end of
many distributions, including the following examples:
mental retardation (some types), majority of attention
deficit disorders, delayed speech, dyslexia (even
allowing for possible referral bias), stuttering, and
learning disabilities and emotionally [sic] disturbances.
Far more boys than girls end up in special education programs. Even the
AAUW report (1992, p. 19) underscores this point, "Boys outnumber girls
in special education programs by startling percentages." Overall, twice as
many boys as girls end up in special classes for the impaired (Table 5).
Table 5: More than Double the Number of Males Are
Enrolled in Special Education Programs: Ratio of Males
Source: Adapted fromThe Condition of Education 1997, (Table
46-2), National Center for Education Statistics, 1997,
Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
|Type of Disability||1986||1988||1990||1992|
The AAUW report attributes this discrepancy to school bias: teachers
discriminate against badly behaved boys. Mislabeling boys may indeed be
part of the explanation. But many of these disabilities appear long before
boys even enter school. Reviewing research on sex difference in learning
disabilities (Nass, 1993) reports large differences in male-female ratios
across many disorders, including such disorders as autism, which appear
early in life (Table 6).
Table 6: Males Vastly Outnumber Females on Many Measures of School
Source: Adapted from "Sex Differences in Learning Abilities and Disabilities," by
R.D. Nass, 1993, Annals of Dsylexia, 43, p. 62.
|Type of Disability||Ratio of Males to Females|
| Language Disorders||3:1|
Greater male vulnerability to disorders is evident before or at the time of
birth. Obstetrical complications such as toxemia are more common with
male fetuses (1.7:1) as is abruptio (2:1), spontaneous abortion (1.4:1), and
birth trauma (1.8:1), as Nass (1993, p. 62) points out. Males are more apt
to display virtually every neuro-developmental and psychiatric disorder
of childhood (Gualtieri & Hicks, 1985).
This is the basic point: The greater number of males at the top in fields like
mathematics and science does not necessarily mean that the schools are
shortchanging girls. The greater number of males at the bottom in classes
for children with learning disabilities does not necessarily mean that the
schools are shortchanging boys. Males are more variable on many
physical and neurological dimensions.
Consider the largest and most stable sex difference in cognitive
abilities---the male advantage in spatial-rotational skills. This ability,
important in advanced mathematical reasoning, has a biological
foundation. Spatial-rotational skills are linked to higher testosterone
levels. Halpern (1997) reviews a variety of evidence:
The spatial-skills performance of normal males
fluctuates in concert with daily variations in
testosterone and seasonal variations...When normal,
aging men were given testosterone to enhance sexual
functioning, they also showed improved performance on
Additionally, when female-to-male transsexuals were
given high doses of testosterone in preparation for sex
change therapy, their visual spatial skills improved
dramatically and their verbal fluency skills declined
dramatically within three months. The results of these
studies and others provide a strong causal link between
levels of adult hormones and sex-typical patterns of
cognitive performance. (p. 1095 )
To point out the strong evidence linking spatial skills to testosterone
levels does not mean that cultural influences do not also affect cognitive
performance. As Halpern (1997) also points out:
Females scored more poorly on a math test when they
were told that the test produced gender differences than
when the test was described as being insensitive to
gender differences. The participants were not conscious
of the effect of these instructions on their performance,
but activating their knowledge of negative stereotypes
prior to the tests had a substantial negative effect.
Adding additional complexity to the tangle of biological and cultural
influences on intellectual functioning is recent research suggesting that
the activities in which people engage influences the way their brains
develop (Reviewed in Halpern, 1997). If little boys play with building
blocks while little girls enact dramatic fantasies in the doll corner, these
activities will strengthen the neural circuitry involved in spatial skills or
In sum, the research literature on sex differences in scores on cognitive
tests and the origins of these differences is complex and contentious. But
there is general agreement on a few important points. First, in the
general population most sex differences on standardized tests of
achievement are small or negligible. Second, among select groups of
higher-achieving young people, however, females have an advantage in
reading achievement and writing skills while males have an advantage in
mathematics, science, and geopolitics. Third, males are more variable
than females in many characteristics, such as mathematics achievement.
Males are far more apt to show up at the bottom of the heap, over
represented in special education classes. By the same token, males are
more apt to show up at the top of the heap, over-represented among the
star mathematics students. Finally, sex differences in intellectual
achievement are rooted in both biological and in cultural influences which
have circular and mutually reinforcing effects. Schools are not
necessarily "shortchanging" either girls or boys when sex differences
occur in cognitive tests and achievement tests.
Even though the schools may not be the cause of sex differences in
achievement, the schools still have an important role to play in making
sure that both girls and boys have the opportunities to develop their
intellectual skills. But they need to be attentive to common problems of
boys, not only of girls. Teachers, for example, should make sure that boys
in the early grades, who may lag behind in reading skills, are not
stigmatized as "slow learners" and assigned to classes where they receive
lower quality instruction. Teachers need to guard against labeling rowdy
or disobedient boys as suffering from "attention deficit disorder" or
"emotional disabilities." Teachers also need to encourage girls to take
mathematics and science courses and to create classroom cultures where
girls actively participate.
Improvements in mathematics and science education for females have
taken place. Government agencies, private foundations, and universities
have supported a spate of gender equity programs, special summer and
internship programs, and teacher training efforts to encourage young
women to move forward in science and mathematics. These efforts have
borne fruit. Comparable programs have not targeted the areas where
boys are behind.
Females Now Take as Many High School Classes in Mathematics and
Science as Males Do. In Advanced Placement Classes in Mathematics
and Science, the Gender Gap is Narrowing.
For women to have opportunities for high level achievement in science
and mathematics, they need to take demanding courses in high school. If
they do not, they will find themselves out of the pool of potential talent.
In the 1980s, high school girls were far less likely than boys to take science
and mathematics classes (Bae & Smith, 1997). By 1994, this gap had
closed (Table 7). Female high school students now take as many
mathematics and science classes as males do---partly as a result of a
nationwide trend to strengthen academic requirements in high schools.
Physics is the exception. The gender gap in favor of males in physics
courses, however, is not as large as the gender gap in favor of females in
Table 7: Females Have Caught Up with or Surpassed Males in High
School Mathematics and Science Courses: High School Graduates, 1994
Source: Adapted from Gender Equity Right From the Start (p. 12), by J. Sanders, J.
Koch, and J. Urso, 1997, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; and based on The
Condition of Education 1996 (p. 100), by National Center for Education Statistics,
1996, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
|High School Courses||Males||Females|
Increasing number of females are also enrolling in Advanced Placement
(AP) courses in mathematics and science, essentially taking college level
work while still in high school. A greater proportion of females take AP
examinations than males (Willingham et al., 1997, pp. 118-121). Females
are over-represented in AP English and languages tests while males are
over-represented in AP tests in mathematics and the natural sciences.
But the proportion of women taking AP examinations in mathematics and
the natural sciences has increased from 37% in 1982-1983 to 43% in 1992
Yet males who take AP tests in mathematics and science still do better
than females. In 1995, for example, the number of students who qualified
for college credit (scores of 3 or higher) in calculus, for example, was 12
per 1000 for males and 9 per 1000 for females (Bae & Smith, 1997, p. 16).
In sum, more females are taking AP mathematics and science tests and the
proportion making high scores has stayed the same. The result is to
increase the total number of talented, high achieving women in
mathematics and science.
In short, the gender gap favoring males in mathematics and science is
very small in the general population but pronounced among the highest
achievers. This gender gap continues into higher education. But it is only
one part of a larger story.
Gender Differences at the Postsecondary Level
In college attainment, a gender gap exists and is increasing. But this
gender gap clearly favors females.
Women Have Become the Majority of College Students---Especially in
the African-American Population---and Women Earn the Majority of
Bachelor's and Master's Degrees
Far from the schools shortchanging girls, colleges are serving a
disproportionate number of female students. In some liberal-arts
colleges, the gender imbalance has become such a serious matter that
administrators have quietly developed male "affirmative action"
programs for males, who are admitted with lower grades and test scores
(Gose, 1997). A gender imbalance in favor of females has begun to show
up at large public universities. In the fall of 1991, for example, 55 percent
of the students in the entering class were women (Gose, 1997).
Some professors warn that young men at certain colleges are developing
a culture adversarial to academic striving, differentiating themselves
from college women who pursue academic success with a clear focus
Furthermore, males from economically disadvantaged groups---African
Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians---are lagging far behind
female counterparts. This gender imbalance has disturbing implications.
Going to college influences people's values and world-view. A large
educational gap between men and women increases the difficulty of
finding compatible mates and forming stable families.
Table 8: More Women Than Men Are Enrolling in College---Especially
Women From Economically Disadvantaged Groups: Proportion of
Women Enrolled in College
Source: FromChronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue, (p. 18), 1997.
|Racial and Ethnic
More women than men are also graduating from college and going on to
get master's degrees (Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue, 1997,
p. 22). In 1995, for example, women won 55 percent of the bachelor's
degrees and 55 percent of the master's degrees. Among African
Americans, the gender gap in favor of females is far larger. In 1995,
African-American men won only 36 percent of bachelor's degrees and only
34 percent of master's degrees. The shortchanged group is not female---it
is African-American males.
Women Are Closing the Gender Gap in Professional Degrees and in
Professional Degrees. Since the 1960s, women have made stunning
progress in obtaining advanced degrees. Their progress is especially
evident in professional fields---the major focus of women's career
- Women attained over 40% of professional degrees awarded in 1994, up
from almost none in 1961 (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Women in 1994 Attained Almost Half of Professional Degrees,
Up from Almost None in 1961. Source: National Center for Education
Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1996, Table 239.
- Minority women made especially large gains in attaining professional
degrees. African-American women received 57% of professional degrees
awarded to African-Americans in 1994, outdoing African-American men
Table 9: Women Have Made Enormous Strides in Professional Degrees
and African-American Women Are Outstripping African-American Men:
Proportion of Professional Degrees Awarded to Female
Source: From Digest of Education Statistics 1996 (Table 268), by National Center for
Education Statistics, 1996, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Note: Professional degrees include law, medicine,
theology, dentistry, chiropractic medicine,
veterinary medicine, pharmacy, osteopathic
medicine, optometry, and podiatry
Women are not only catching up, but actually surpassing men in some
- Most women with professional aspirations seek law degrees. In 1994,
43 percent of law degrees were awarded to women.
- In 1994, women received the majority of professional degrees awarded
in veterinary medicine, pharmacy, and optometry.
Table 10: Women Received the Majority of Degrees in Veterinary
Medicine, Pharmacy, and Optometry in 1994
Source: From Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue (p. 23), 1997.
Business Administration Degrees. Women are also catching up in
receiving business degrees, especially the advanced MBA.
- In 1995, American women received over 37 percent of the MBAs
awarded American citizens (NCES, 1997b, Table 269).
- The number of MBAs awarded to women since 1965 has increased more
than a hundredfold. In 1965, women received only about 300 MBAs. In
1995, women received almost 35,000 MBAs (NCES, 1997b, Table 281).
Doctoral Degrees. The gender gap in doctoral degrees is also closing.
Since the 1960s, women have made enormous progress in gaining
doctoral degrees (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Women in 1994 Attained About 40 Percent of Doctoral Degrees,
Up from About 10 Percent in 1961. The gain would be more dramatic if the
figures since the 1980s were corrected for the large number of male
foreign students receiving doctorates, but a time series for earlier years is
unavailable. Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of
Education Statistics 1996, Table 239.
- In the biological and life sciences, American women in 1994 received
over 40 percent of the doctorates, up from 12 percent in 1962 ( Figure 3).
Figure 3: Women in 1994 Attained Over 40 Percent of Biological and Life
Sciences Doctoral Degrees, Up from 12 Percent in 1962. This gain would
be more dramatic if corrected for the large number of doctorates in these
fields awarded to foreign male students since the 1980s , but a time series
for earlier years was unavailable. Source: National center for Education
Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1996 Table 273 (data interpolated
for 1961, 1963, 1965, 1969).
- In mathematics and the physical sciences, American women in 1994
received over 20 percent of the doctorates, up from only 4 percent in 1961
Figure 4: Women in 1994 Attained Over 20 Percent of Mathematics and
Physical Sciences Doctoral Degrees, Up from 4 Percent in 1961. The gains
would be more substantial if the figure was corrected for the large
number of doctorates in these fields awarded to fmale foreign students
since the 1980s , but a time series for earlier years was not available.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education
Statistics 1996 Tables 285 and 286 (data interpolated for 1961-1967 and
Since the early 1960s, women have received more than three times as
many doctorates in the biological sciences and more than five times as
many doctorates in the physical sciences and mathematics.
American women are actually making far more progress in the biological
sciences and in mathematics and the physical sciences than these historical
analyses reveal. The reason is the increasing number of students from
other countries, overwhelmingly male, who now receive doctorates from
American universities. In 1995, more than a third of the doctorates
awarded went to international students, and males in this group
outnumbered females by a ratio of considerably more than 3 to 1
(Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue, 1997, pp. 22-23).
If we consider only doctorates awarded to American citizens and resident
aliens, we see that the gender gap has almost closed. In 1995, American
women received 45 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded to American
citizens (Table 11). Among African-Americans, American-Indians, and
Hispanics, women received half or more of the doctorates.
Table 11: American Women Are Obtaining Almost Half of Doctorates
Awarded to American Citizens and African-American Women are
Surpassing African-American Men: Proportion of Doctorates 1994-95
Source: From Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue (p. 23), 1997.
|Ethnic Group||Males ||Females|
|African-Americans||44% (n =731)||56% (n =936)|
|American Indians||45% (n = 58)||55% (n =72)|
|Hispanics||50% (n = 488)||50% (n= 496)|
|Asians||65% (n =1,758)||35% (n =932)|
|Whites||55% (n = 15,354)||45% (n = 12,472)|
|Total||55% (n = 18,407)||45% (n = 14,909)|
Students from other countries, furthermore, are concentrated in
mathematics and the physical sciences. If we omit these international
students, the progress of American women in the sciences becomes even
more substantial. In 1995, American women received 43% of doctorates
in the biological sciences, 24% of doctorates in mathematics and 22% of
doctorates in the physical sciences (Table 12).
Table 12: Women Are Closing the Doctorate Gap in Many Fields:
Doctorates Awarded in 1993-94, U.S. Citizens
Source: From Digest of Education Statistics 1996 (Table 266), by National Center for
Education Statistics, 1996, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
|Major Field of Study||Men||Women||Proportion|
The drumbeat in the media concerning the low numbers of women in
science and mathematics diverts policy attention from another gap we
should be worried about---the deteriorating performance of American
students compared to international students in the advanced sciences and
mathematics. In 1994, students from the United States earned only 53
percent of the doctorates in mathematics and the physical sciences
awarded by American universities (NCES, 1996, Table 293).
The gap in performance between American men and women in the
natural sciences and in mathematics is genuine and indeed a cause for
concern. But this gender gap, it is also important to recognize, affects the
prospects and careers of very few people. It is far from a monumental
social problem. In 1994, for example, 450 American men received
doctorates in mathematics compared to 146 women. In the physical
sciences, 2,335 American men received doctorates compared to 659
women (NCES, 1996, Table 266). To achieve parity in mathematics and
the physical sciences would affect fewer than 2,000 women a year.
Consider the number of people affected by a different gender gap, which
is virtually ignored---the gap in the college graduation rates of African
American men, who are far behind African-American women. To close
this gender gap would advance the prospects of twelve times as many
people---close to 24,000 African-American men each year (Chronicle of
Higher Education Almanac Issue, 1997, p. 23).
In short, women are moving into high status occupations in enormous
numbers. Ambitious women, however, are seeking professional degrees
far more often than doctoral degrees in mathematics and the physical
sciences (Bae & Smith, 1997, p. 18). Among women who were college
freshmen in 1996, twice as many women (20 percent) aspired to
professional fields compared to men (less than 10 percent). More men did
seek careers in the physical sciences and mathematics (3 percent)
compared to women (2 percent), but these numbers are minuscule. The
emphasis on the gender gap in mathematics and science has diverted
attention from the great strides large numbers of women are making in
the high status careers they are choosing---the professions.
Gender Differences in Classroom Participation
If girls make higher grades in school, get higher class rank and more
academic honors, surpass boys on standardized tests in two subjects
(reading and writing) and lag behind in two subjects (mathematics and
science), graduate from college more often but attain a slightly smaller
proportion of advanced degrees, what then is the basis for the charge that
the schools shortchange girls? A fair judge might call such a pattern a
draw: females do better in some academic areas and males do better in
The charge that the schools shortchange girls is not based on such hard
and comprehensive measures of educational attainment but instead on
soft and slippery issues, like the "silencing" of girls in the classroom. The
AAUW report (1992) emphasizes dramatic, highly publicized findings from
research by David and Myra Sadker:
Whether one looks at preschool classrooms or
university lecture halls, at female teachers or male
teachers, research spanning the past twenty years
consistently reveals that males receive more
teacher attention than do females...
Researchers David and Myra Sadker have studied
these patterns for many years. They report that
boys in one study of elementary and middle school
students called out answers eight times more often
than girls did. When boys called out, the typical
teacher reaction was to listen to the comment.
When girls called out, they were usually corrected
with comments such as, "Please raise your hand if
you want to speak." (p. 68)
The Sadkers' findings are indeed shocking. The problem is that the
research on which these dramatic findings were based has strangely
disappeared (Sommers, 1994; Kleinfeld, 1996). It is hard for a study to
disappear---ordinarily many copies are made and circulated. I telephoned
David Sadker to ask him directly about the serious charge that his famous
study had disappeared. He could not send me a copy of the report. He
disingenuously directed me to his university's proposal office and asserted
that many other studies of classroom interaction support the contention
anyway that boys receive far more attention than girls in the classroom.
Leaving the Sadkers' "lost" study aside, what evidence do we have from
other studies of classrooms that teachers do give more attention to boys
or even that boys talk more in the classroom? This seems like a
straightforward question, but the question actually contains a tangle of
murky issues. First, the question carries a hidden assumption---that
differences in teacher attention actually influence how much students
learn. But we actually have no evidence that talking in class or getting
attention from the teacher makes any difference to student achievement,
as Lindow, Marrett, & Wilkinson (1985, pp. 13-14) point out in their
summary of the major studies on classroom interaction.
Second, the meaning of "getting attention from the teacher" is unclear.
Suppose, for example, that a teacher asks a fourth-grade boy a question
in class. Is this a genuine academic question, which will help him learn?
Or is the teacher's question actually a reprimand in disguise? The teacher
may see that the boy is acting up and use the question to get him back on
Third, studies of classroom interaction are expensive and difficult to
conduct, so we do not have large, representative studies of what goes on
in different classrooms, in different subjects, and in different locales. To
get a stable and reliable measure, a well-trained researcher must sit in the
classroom for many hours and count who talks, who asks questions, who
answers questions. Unlike achievement tests or college graduation rates,
we have no nationally representative data on the question.
Finally, most classroom interaction studies, especially in recent years,
have been conducted in classrooms where females are suspected to be,
and most likely are, at a disadvantage. These are high school
mathematics and science classrooms, subjects where females generally do
not excel, and law school classrooms, where an aggressive style of
classroom questioning has long been considered crucial to preparing
students for the combat of legal discourse (Reviewed in Young,
forthcoming). The research on gender interaction in the classroom does
not feature studies conducted in literature classes or foreign language
classes, areas of female strength. In these classrooms, the results might
be quite different.
Sex differences in classroom participation, as measured by observers, are
small, inconsistent, and variable. Some results show teachers favoring
boys while others show teachers favoring girls.
The classic Gender Influences in Classroom Interaction presents the
studies of the leading researchers who have examined patterns of
classroom talk. In their "Overview" to the studies in this book, Janet
Lindow, Cora Marrett, and Louise Cherry Wilkinson (1985) provide a
clear description of the typical classroom patterns researchers have
Research conducted in elementary school
classrooms shows rather consistently that teachers
give more attention to boys than to girls (Berk &
Lewis, 1977; Blumenfeld, Hamilton, & Bossert,
1979; Minuchin & Schapiro, 1983, p. 228), although
there is also research to the contrary (cf. Field,
1980). However, much of the contact with boys
tends to be negative; it is managerial and
disciplinary in nature (Bossert, 1981; Huston, 1983,
p. 439; Leinhardt, Seewald, & Engel, 1979).
There is less consensus regarding teacher
instructional contacts. Although several studies
found that girls receive more instructional contacts
(Biber, Miller & Dwyer, 1972; Fagot, 1973; Fagot &
Patterson, 1969) others found the opposite (cf.
Sears & Feldman, 1966). (p. 5)
In a nutshell, no consistent pattern of male or female favoritism appears.
Teachers do give more attention to boys but this attention has to do with
keeping boys in line. Whether teachers give more academic attention to
boys, the kind that might indicate bias, is unclear. Sommers' (1994) more
recent literature review highlights the same inconsistency:
A 1987 study by K. Tobin and P. Garnett had found
that a few "target" students in the science
classroom tended to dominate classroom
interactions, and these targets tended to be males.
But a further study of target students...found that
"although there were more male than female
target students, the female target students
averaged more interactions per class session than
male target students."
That kind of result is typical of the status of
research in this area. It makes one wonder whether
the study of student-teacher interaction ,using
gender as a key category and "unconscious bias" as
a possible parameter, is worth all the trouble. (p.
Law schools are the most recent front in the battle over which sex
dominates the classroom (American Bar Association, 1996). Reviewing
this field of combat, Young (forthcoming) concludes that the following
charge could be correct: Men may indeed talk more than women in some
law school classes. On the other hand, verbal combat in the classroom
socializes law students for verbal combat in the courtroom.
Not all students preparing to be lawyers, whether men or women, may
find the intellectual thrust and parry of the Socratic method a congenial
form of discourse. If their law school classes did not prepare them for
such verbal combat, important both in the courtroom and in negotiations,
then the schools would indeed be shortchanging the many women
preparing to be lawyers.
As any experienced teacher knows, who talks in class and who gets more
attention from the teacher depends a great deal on the particular
situation---the personalities of the students in this particular class, the
subject matter, the classroom rules, the preferences of the teacher for
orderly turn-taking versus fast-paced classroom discussion. The AAUW's
charge that girls are silenced in the classroom ignores the complexity of
The AAUW's own commissioned research in fact undercuts the position it
trumpets---that girls receive less attention than boys. The AAUW
sponsored a nationwide survey of 3,000 children between grades four and
ten which forms one important statistical base for its glossy, highly
publicized reports (American Association of University Women
[AAUW]/Greenberg-Lake, 1990). When I tried to obtain a copy of this
report, I had a difficult time.
While the politicized version, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992) is
available for a mere $16.95, obtaining the full data report requires a
payment of $85.00 for unbound xeroxed pages. The AAUW provides an
800-number for ordering its reports, but the person I called at this number
knew nothing about the full data report. I then called the AAUW offices,
left messages, and waited for weeks to get telephone calls returned until I
finally located someone who knew of this report.
That the AAUW should make the report difficult to obtain is
understandable. The data from their own report do not back up the
charges they publicize---that girls receive less attention from teachers.
When asked about their personal experience, boys and girls reported
receiving virtually identical amounts of attention from their teachers
(Table 13). The gender differences that occur are trivial, and sometimes
favor boys and sometimes favor girls.
Table 13: Girls See Themselves Participating in Class as Much as Boys
Source: Adapted from Expectations and Aspirations: Gender Roles and Self-Esteem
(pp. 15-16), by AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, Washington, DC: Greenberg-Lake.
Classroom Participation ||Girls: Percentage
"Yes"||Boys: Percentage |
|Get Called on Often||59%||57%|
|Believe you know
something but teacher
doesn't think so||76%||74%|
|Have things to say but|
teacher doesn't let you
|Answer questions a lot||50%||53%|
When asked about teacher bias in teacher attention, boys and girls do
report bias. But what they see is bias against boys. Boys and girls agree
"by overwhelming margins," in the report's own words, that teachers
give more attention to girls (AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, p. 64).
Table 14: Boys and Girls Believe Teachers Give More Attention to Girls
Source: Adapted from Expectations and Aspirations: Gender Roles and Self-Esteem
(p. 18), by AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, Washington, DC: Greenberg-Lake.
Beliefs About School
|Boys' Perceptions||Girls' Perceptions|
|Who does teacher call|
on more often?
|Who does teacher|
pay more attention to?
A more recent, nationally representative survey examining gender issues
in public schools, The Metropolitan Life Survey of The American Teacher
1997 (Harris, 1997), finds the same pattern. This study is based on a study
of 1,306 students in grades 7-12 and a parallel study of 1,035 teachers from
grades 6-12. When students are asked about their own participation in
class, gender differences are small and inconsistent.
Boys see themselves as participating in class more
frequently than other groups, with 44%
participating "very often" compared to 38%
females (Harris, 1997, p. 89).
- Girls who raise their hands see themselves as
getting called on"often," by greater margins (72%
vs. 66%) than boys (Harris, 1997, p. 98).
- More boys than girls (31% vs. 19%) feel that it is
"mostly true" that teachers do not listen to what
they have to say (Harris, 1997, p. 131).
- Boys demand more attention in class than girls,
according to the majority (61%) of teachers and
boys call out answers more according to about half
(53%) of teachers (Harris, 1997, p. 122).
- On the other hand, 47 percent of teachers say that
girls asked for more help after class (Harris, 1997,
In sum, the research on classroom interaction does not show consistent
teacher favoritism toward boys or girls. Whether we look at studies by
observers sitting in the classrooms or the perceptions of the students
themselves, what we see are small and inconsistent sex differences, some
favoring girls and others favoring boys. We see no pattern of more
academic attention going to boys, and, even if we did, we have no
evidence that teacher attention in class has any relationship to
Gender Differences in Self-Esteem
The other highly publicized AAUW message---that girls have lower self
esteem than boys---rests on equally shaky grounds. The commercial
success of psychologist Mary Pipher's (1994) pop-feminist book, Reviving
Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, brought this message to
the general public. A clinical psychologist who treats troubled girls,
Pipher's anecdotes come primarily from her practice, not from any
systematic, scientific comparisons of adolescent girls and adolescent
boys. The message has been aired so often, on Oprah and the Today
show, in Time and Newsweek, that its truth seems unquestionable.
Everyone now knows, do they not, that girls have lower self-esteem than
boys. Everyone now knows that girls suffer a severe drop in self-esteem
at adolescence. Everyone now knows that boys gain confidence at
adolescence while girls lose the vitality and confidence they displayed in
When I began the research for this paper, I as well did not question these
beliefs. The issue, I thought then, was whether girls' loss of confidence
and vitality at adolescence had anything to do with what happened to
them in the school. Perhaps the explanation for adolescent girls' loss of
self-confidence had to do with the hormonal changes of puberty; I
consulted physicians on the physiology of puberty and the relationship of
hormonal change to mood disorders. Perhaps the explanation for girls'
loss of self-confidence had to do with the Barbie doll standards of thinness
and beauty that so many adolescent girls struggle without success to
attain; I wanted to take a hard look at what adolescent girls' sense of
themselves was based on---beauty, popularity, academic success.
What I was not expecting to find was that the fundamental idea that I had
simply taken for granted---that adolescent girls actually do have lower
self-esteem than boys---might not be true. I did a computerized search of
the recent research literature on self-esteem, with the assistance of a
professional reference librarian. The database (PsychINFO) yielded 84
references to the combined keywords "human sex differences" and "self
esteem" and "adolescence." A review of this literature suggests these
- Self-esteem is extremely difficult to measure. Different studies define
and assess self-worth, self-acceptance, self-confidence, and related
concepts in quite different ways.
- The bases of self-esteem appear to be different in boys and girls and in
different ethnic groups. What adolescents think about themselves is far
more dependent on physical appearance and on relationships with friends
than on what happens in schools.
- While boys are more often reported to have higher self-esteem than
girls, the differences are typically small and could easily be explained by a
slight tendency of boys to choose extreme response categories on vague,
multiple-choice questions. Some of the most careful research in the field
shows no differences between boys and girls either in "self-esteem" or in
"loss of voice."
Common sense suggests that a person's response to a question like
whether "I'm happy the way I am" (a core question in the
AAUW/Greenberg-Lake study) depends on the person's mood and recent
experiences. Many people with a solid opinion of their own self-worth
might not say "Always True" [emphasis in original] in response to such a
statement because such an answer would reveal a most unbecoming lack
of modesty or a most unbecoming disinterest in self-improvement. Yet,
these are the types of questions on which the AAUW bases its findings
about low self-esteem among adolescent girls.
Studies of adolescent self-esteem, moreover, reveal another problem
which makes interpretation of these vague questions difficult. What
adolescents say in response to such questions appears to be based on
different criteria among females and males and among different ethnic
groups (Thorne & Michaelieu, 1996; Tashakkori, 1993a; 1993b). Personal
appearance and attractiveness and peer relationships play a large role in
what adolescents think of themselves. This is the key point: Academic
self-confidence, the kind nurtured by the schools, does not show much
relationship to general self-esteem in any gender or ethnic group
Leaving aside these serious problems in measuring self-esteem, the
research actually shows no large, consistent gender differences in self
esteem at adolescence. Some of the most well-known researchers who
specialize in the study of self-esteem, such as Susan Harter (1997), find no
gender gap at all either in measures of self-esteem or in confidence in
revealing your opinions and who you are (termed as "lack of voice" in
Harter's research). Using carefully developed measures, Harter (1997)
examined "lack of voice" among approximately 900 boys and girls from
grades 6 through 12. Contrary to the feminist argument that "voice"
declines for females as they enter adolescence, Harter (1997) finds:
There is no evidence in our data for loss of voice
among adolescent females as a group....The mean
levels we obtain (average scores of around 3.0 on a
four-point scale reveal that levels of voice are
relatively high among young female adolescents.
...We have also found no evidence for gender
differences favoring males... [Emphasis in original ]
Nor does Harter find that girls are more likely than boys to suppress their
opinions in school because they don't want to seem smart and aggressive:
It has also been claimed that girls, in particular,
suppress their opinions within the school setting
because they are fearful of looking too smart, which
may cause them to risk rejection by their male
classmates (Orenstein, 1994). We asked our low
voice high school subjects to respond to items that
tapped this issue directly (e.g., I don't say what I
think because I don't want to look too smart). Once
again, we found no gender difference supporting
the claims that this is merely a problem for girls.
Anecdotal reports from within the high school
suggest that certain boys are fearful of being
considered "nerds", "dorks", or "brains", if they are
too smart, risking peer rejection. (pp. 38-39)
We need to pay attention to individuals, Harter emphasizes. Certain girls
and certain boys do lack confidence and voice. But the problem is hardly
limited to girls. "Reviving Ophelia," Harter (1997, p. 51) tartly concludes,
"is certainly a worthy goal. However, Hamlet also displayed serious
problems of indecision and lack of voice."
It is important to point out once again that the research literature on
gender differences in self-esteem is full of inconsistencies. Some studies
do show differences in global measures of self-esteem in favor of boys
(Dukes & Martinez, 1994; Chubb, Fertman, & Ross, 1997; Francis &
James, 1996). Careful analysis of such reports, however, raises the
question as to whether such measures of self-esteem discriminate against
girls who may not be as inclined as boys to brag or choose extreme
responses on surveys.
The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls,
released in 1997, provides a recent example of the politicization of trivial
sex differences in self-esteem (Schoen et al., 1997). The glossy report and
media kit trumpet the standard, politicized message---a gender gap exists
in self-confidence that widens in adolescence. I noted that the scoring
system for the measure of self-confidence was most unusual---a lot of
weight was placed on extreme responses in deciding who fell into the
category of "high self-confidence." I telephoned the Commonwealth
Fund to ask for a copy of the actual results for each question and, to their
credit, the Commonwealth Fund promptly faxed to me the actual
What this survey actually shows is remarkably similar levels of self
confidence among boys and girls. Boys are more apt to give extreme
responses. This could indicate higher self-esteem but it could also indicate
a lack of verbal subtlety or what some might consider an unfortunate lack
of modesty. The following table presents the actual responses of boys and
girls to these questions phrased in a straightforward, positive way:
Table 15: Adolescent Boys and Girls Both Express High Levels of Self
Source: From The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls,
by C. Schoen, K. Davis, K. S. Collins, L. Greenberg, C. Des Roches, and M. Abrams,
1997, New York: The Commonwealth Fund. Data Tabulations provided by the
|I feel that I am a|
person of worth, at least on an
equal basis with others.
|I feel that I have|
a number of good qualities.
|I am able to do things as well as
most other people.|
|I take a positive attitude toward
|On the whole, I|
am satisfied with myself.
Virtually no important difference between adolescent boys and girls
appears, and both sexes express virtually the same positive opinions of
themselves when the "strongly agree" and "somewhat agree" categories
are added together. Yet, these findings are sent to the media as more
proof of the gender gap in self-confidence.
In terms of academic self-confidence, the type of self-esteem that
depends on what happens in schools, teachers boost girls' academic self
confidence far more than they do that of boys.
These are the basic findings about adolescent self-esteem promoted by the
AAUW Report, How Schools Shortchange Girls (1992).
A nationwide survey commissioned by the American
Association of University Women in 1990 found that
on average 69 percent of elementary school boys
and 60 percent of elementary school girls reported
that they were "happy the way I am"; among high
school students, the percentages were 46 percent
for boys and only 29 percent for girls. (AAUW, 1992,
The AAUW report implies that the schools are to blame. Self-confidence is
one more area where the schools shortchange girls. When I obtained the
actual report on self-esteem on which this charge was based, I found no
evidence that the schools eroded girls' self-confidence. The reason that so
many teenage girls were not "happy with the way I am" at adolescence,
as the actual AAUW/Greenberg-Lake report (1990) clearly shows, was
that the girls are more dissatisfied with their physical appearance. As the
report itself puts this point:
The Importance of Appearance. For boys and girls
of all races feelings of attractiveness are a
fundamental part of overall self-worth.
Evaluations of personal appearance (as measured
by responses to the statement, "I like the way I
look") correlate strongly with more general
statements about self-esteem (such as "I'm happy
as I am" and "I like most things about myself").
Other specific assessments of self-esteem, including
academic performance, relationships with peers
and family, feelings of importance and acceptance,
are all less central to self-esteem than is
appearance (p. 31).
The AAUW/Greenberg-Lake report (1990) does not show that the schools
shortchange girls, that the schools in any way contribute to girls'
dissatisfaction with themselves at adolescence. The report in fact shows
the exact opposite. Girls see the school as an arena where they receive
disproportionately more positive messages about themselves. Boys make
the same judgment---teachers favor girls and boost their self-esteem.
These are the findings hidden in the statistical tables which the AAUW
makes it so difficult to obtain:
Table 16: Teachers Bolster Girls' Self-Esteem in the Classroom Far More
than Boys' Self Esteem
Source: Adapted from Expectations and Aspirations: Gender Roles and Self-Esteem
(p. 18), by AAUW/Greenberg-Lake, 1990, Washington, DC: Greenberg-Lake.
|Perceptions of the
| Boys' Answers|| Girls' Answers|
|Who do teachers|
think are smarter?
|Who do teachers
|Who do teachers|
punish more often?
|Who do teachers like
to be around?|
Another AAUW report, released without publicity, also undercuts the
message that the climate of the schools shortchanges girls (Lee, Chen, &
Smerdon, 1996). This study is based an excellent sample, the National
Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, a carefully drawn sample of
more than 9,000 students in almost 400 schools. Its authors explain that
they had intended to examine school climate in the middle grades because
of the "research identifying early adolescence as the developmental stage
when a gender gap favoring boys often emerges in self-perception and
school performance (AAUW, 1992)."
But the findings did not support this position at all. The study found only
small to moderate gender differences, "favoring girls as well as boys"
(Lee et al., 1996, p. 1). To the authors' chagrin, poor schools shortchanged
boys far more than girls. The more orderly the school and the higher
quality instruction, the more boys became engaged in learning and the
larger the gender gap became, in favor of boys.
In a coup de grace to the AAUW's much publicized findings about the low
self-esteem of adolescent girls, the 1997 Metropolitan Life Survey comes
to the opposite conclusions. The Met-Life report on gender issues is one
of a series of reports with the policy goal of bringing understanding to
current issues that affect the nation's schools. As previously discussed,
this survey sought the opinions of a nationally representative sample of
1,306 students from grades 7-12 and 1,035 teachers in grades 6-12 on girls'
and boys' experiences in the schools and aspirations for the future. The
conclusions flatly contradict the message that the schools shortchange
(Emphasis in original, p. 3)
- contrary to the commonly held view that boys
are at an advantage over girls in school, girls
appear to have an advantage over boys in terms of
their future plans, teachers' expectations, everyday
experiences at school and interactions in the
- minority girls hold the most optimistic views of
the future and are the group most likely to focus on
- minority boys are the most likely to feel
discouraged about the future and the least
interested in getting a good education; and
- teachers nationwide view girls as higher
achievers and more likely to succeed than boys.
The Met-Life study is based on teachers' and students' beliefs, not
objective measures of actual school achievement. But the wealth of
evidence reviewed in this paper shows that objective measures of
achievement support these beliefs. Girls surpass boys in reading and
writing skills. Girls are more apt to go to college and graduate with
baccalaureate and masters' degrees. Girls have higher aspirations for
professional degrees and have made dramatic progress in attaining both
professional and doctoral degrees. Far from shortchanging girls, the
schools encourage and favor girls.
The charge that the schools shortchange girls is false political
propaganda. In their zeal to advance the interests of women, the
American Association of University Women and other advocacy groups
have distorted the achievements of women and the experience of girls
and boys in schools. But what harm has been done, a sensible person
might ask? Government agencies, foundations, and teachers have
directed attention and resources to girls and have developed their skills in
those areas where girls do lag behind, science and mathematics.
The myth that the schools shortchange girls, one might argue, is nothing
more than what Plato called a "noble lie"---a falsehood in the service of a
desirable political good (Plato, trans. 1942, pp. 302-304). But this noble lie,
it turns out, is not so noble. It draws attention and resources away from
the group the schools truly fail, African-American males. This lie has
other, more insidious, effects on the culture of schools. The problem was
evident in a workshop I attended for the teachers of gifted and talented
students. I was on a panel with several school counselors. The
moderator posed the question, "What can we do to help girls, who suffer
such a loss of self-esteem at adolescence?" One of the counselors on the
panel launched into a fiery description of the emotional problems of
teenage girls. Girls she knew had changed from vigorous children who
spoke their minds to bored and passive teenagers. This counselor was not
aware that she was repeating the message of the AAUW report. These
ideas had been promoted in workshops and education courses for years.
They were just in the air.
I came next on the panel and thought about what I should do. Should I
flat out contradict this counselor and tell the teachers in the audience that
the research shows no important difference between teenage boys and
girls in self-esteem, that this research has been politicized to make girls
look like victims? As diplomatically as I could, I made these points. The
counselor's reaction astonished me.
"I'm so glad you said that!" she proclaimed. "I know that boys have
problems, too. But we just don't give the boys much attention."
Other teachers agreed, with a palpable sense of relief. "Come to think of
it, I have four suicidal adolescents in my classes this year, and all four are
boys," one said.
"Write a newspaper article about this. Get the word out," said the sole
male teacher at the workshop. "We're too busy to read the professional
literature. We didn't know this."
The school counselor bemoaning the problems of girls, it turned out, had
actually developed a valuable program for teenage boys. She had invited
a male graduate student from the university to talk with several troubled
boys. The same boys who wouldn't talk to her, she observed, sprawled on
the floor with this graduate student, talking with intensity. But she hadn't
bothered to describe her program to the other teachers. Troubled boys
were not on the list of topics important enough to discuss.
Indeed, boys came up only indirectly when the panel was given the
question of what to do with bright students who complain that they are
"bored" in school. I could tell that most of these students were boys from
the teachers' examples. One described a boy, for example, who hated
math class because the class was too slow for him. His teacher forced him
to do pages of problems that he already understood. What was the
solution? "Let bored students know that it is not acceptable to say 'I'm
bored' to teachers," was the consensus of the school counselors. Figuring
out a way to provide more advanced instruction in mathematics, for
either boys or girls, was not on the agenda.
In the hectic, crowded world of the classroom, teachers have limited time,
attention and energy. Teachers are concentrating on the problems of
girls, but they are dismissing the problems of boys and neglecting the
problem of how to educate the most gifted students. The focus on
promoting female success gives the schools an excuse for ignoring their
gravest failure with minority boys. The "noble lie" that the schools
shortchange girls is not so noble, after all.
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Judith Kleinfeld received her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College in 1966 and
her doctoral degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1969. She is
professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and head of the Northern Studies department. The Northern Studies website can be found at http://www.uaf.edu/northern. Her many
publications focus on gender issues, the education of culturally diverse children, and
the education of children with fetal alcohol syndrome. In 1993, she won the Emil
Usibelli Award for Distinguished Research. For an extended bio, please see http://www.uaf.edu/northern/program/faculty/klnfld.html.
She can be reached at: College of Liberal Arts, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
Fairbanks, Alaska 99775. Telephone: (907) 474-5266; e-mail: email@example.com
The Women's Freedom Network
4410 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20016
A printer-friendly version of this document (in Adobe PDF format) can be downloaded at:http://www.uaf.edu/northern/schools/download.html
Hard copies may be ordered from Professor Kleinfeld at
the address below.
Professor of Psychology
University of Alaska
Fairbanks, Alaska 99712
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