The Weaker Sex… Revisited

Years ago, James Tiptree, Jr. [Alice Sheldon] wrote a novella entitled “Houston, Houston, Do You Read,” in which present-day male astronauts were catapulted into a future where there are no men. The implications of the story are that, despite their greater physical strength, men were indeed the weaker sex and perished, albeit with a little “help.” Some recent analyses of educational achievement by gender suggest that Sheldon just might have been on to something.

Over the past few years, sociologists, psychologists, teachers, and even politicians have been raising an increasing number of questions about the gender and educational implications of a high-tech society. Three generations ago, women students were a clear minority in higher education and in almost all “professional” occupations. Today, female students comprise the majority of undergraduate college students and graduates, with a nationwide ratio running in excess of 56% to 44%, a ratio that is becoming more unbalanced every year. So many more women are attending college that upon many campuses, particularly at elite universities and liberal arts colleges, they’re being subjected another form of discrimination. In order to keep a gender balance, many schools effectively require female students to meet higher academic standards than male students.

A recent report [Gender Equity in Higher Education: 2006] reported that in college men spent more time watching television, playing video games, and partying, while women had better grades, held more leadership posts, and claimed far more honors and awards.

The trend of women seeking professional education is also continuing in many graduate fields, such as law and medicine, where women outnumber men at many institutions.

In more and more state universities, women outnumber men, in some cases composing sixty percent of the student body. Even at Harvard, the latest freshman class has more women than men. The only areas where men are numerically dominant are in the hard sciences and in engineering, but even there, a greater and greater percentage of science and engineering students are female. Not only that, but in the vast majority of institutions, the majority of awards and honors are going to women. Now, admittedly, this female expertise hasn’t yet managed to reach and shatter the “glass ceiling” prevalent in the upper reaches of the faculty in higher education or in corporate America, but it’s coming, one way or another. There are female CEOs, but many women are simply choosing to create their own businesses, rather than play the “good old boy game.” Others become consultants.

Another factor that I’ve noted in my occasional university teaching, and one also noted by various family members, three of whom are professors at different universities, is that a decreasing percentage of college-age men are inclined to apply themselves in any degree that requires more than minimal effort, both physically and intellectually. This is a disturbing trend for society in a world where education and intellectual ability have become increasingly important, both to hold society together and to achieve a comfortable lifestyle suited to personal satisfaction and raising children. Even more disturbing is that this gender-based educational disparity becomes greater and greater as the income of the parents decreases. In short, men from disadvantaged homes are often half as likely to get a college degree as women from the same cultural and economic background.

Both my wife [who is a full professor] and I have watched male students turn down full-tuition scholarships because the requirements were “too hard,” while talented women literally had to claw their way through the same program.

Do these trends represent a failure of our educational system.. or is it that too many men can’t really compete with women once the playing field starts to get more level? Or that men need special treatment to achieve on an equal basis? After all, the real hunters are the lionesses, not the “noble” lion.