In this week’s New York Times, columnist Nick Kristof reports on the latest trouble with young boys—who, according to the Center on Education Policy, have fallen behind girls in reading in every single state. “The most pressing issue related to gender gaps,” the report claims, “is the lagging performance of boys in reading.”
Before everyone starts freaking out about the boy crisis, a quick reality check:
Boys have been lagging behind girls in school for decades. As Peg Tyre wrote in her book, “The Trouble With Boys,” elementary-aged boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities; and the number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan study. Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses: thirty years ago, men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body, today, at 40 percent, they’re a minority. As Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. secretary of Education, told Newsweek in 2006, this widening achievement gap “has profound implications for the economy, society, families and democracy.”
But here’s the rub: no matter how poorly boys do in school, there is no evidence to show that that those lags impede their later success. And in fact, young men still outpace women in the workforce to an astonishing degree. U.S. Department of Education data shows that despite earning lower college GPAs, men still earn some 20 percent more than women in their first jobs out of college. The wage gap widens as men accelerate into management positions more quickly—over a lifetime, male high school graduates will earn some $700,000 more than their wives or sisters; college graduates will earn $1.2 million more.
To be sure, academia is critical—but the workplace lasts the rest of your life. And while young women may thrive in a merit-based system, there is growing evidence to prove they don’t have the skills to excel in a professional setting. Young women are four times less likely to negotiate a first salary, and, according to a recent Girl Scouts study, afraid to take on leadership positions they fear will make them seem “bossy.” “The zeitgeist is that girls are excelling and boys are having trouble,” says Rachel Simmons, the author of The Curse of the Good Girl. But it all depends on what you’re measuring.” In other words, all those ribbons and medals don’t translate to the real world if women are too afraid to ask for what they deserve.
Kristof makes the point that this doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game: “We should be able to help struggling boys without imposing any cost on girls,” he writes. He’s right. But the reality remains: gender inequities still—as they have for centuries—damage many more women than men.