Are Women to Blame for the Decline of Men?

Why do girls today seem more motivated than boys?

Posted Mar 14, 2011

Kay Hymowitz has a new book out, titled Manning Up: how the rise of women has turned men into boys. She asks: Why are so many young men today goofing off, while their sisters are working hard to graduate with honors or to advance in the workplace? She answers that the growing gender gap in motivation is due to "our cultural uncertainty about the social role of men." In ancient times, say 50 years ago, a man was expected to be the primary or sole breadwinner, while his wife was expected mostly to raise the kids and tend to the home. Today, Hymowitz writes, "with women moving ahead in our advanced economy, husbands and fathers are now optional." The result, according to Hymowitz, is a growing proportion of young men asking: "Why should they grow up? No one needs them anyway. There's nothing they have to do."

Boys Adrift

Why are so many boys adrift?

Hymowitz's argument is not new. Her book is just the latest of many to assert that the rise of women has led to the decline of men. Previous books in the series include Why Boys Fail, The Decline of Males, The Trouble with Boys, and the granddaddy of them all, The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Sommers asserted that the disengagement of boys from school is the result of a feminist conspiracy led by Hillary Clinton and Carol Gilligan.

If these authors are correct, or even close, then the prospects for young men today are bleak. We're not going back to the bad old days of the 1960's and earlier when women were denied equal opportunity in school and in the workplace. So, we're stuck with young men playing Call of Duty while their sisters prepare to run the real world. Or so one might think after reading these books.

But these authors are mistaken. Yes, boys and young men today are on average less motivated to achieve than their sisters are, both in school and in the workplace (although there are some notable exceptions; think Mark Zuckerberg). When I ask high school principals what proportion of highest honors among their graduating seniors are awarded to girls, the answer today is usually more than 2-to-1 in favor of the girls - not only at public schools, but also at elite private schools. Women now constitute 58% of graduates at 4-year colleges and universities, but generally account for more than 70% of those graduating with highest honors (excepting trade and technical schools). In the workplace, CUNY demographer Andrew Beveridge has documented that the average young woman working in major American cities such as New York and Dallas now significantly out-earns the average young man. She's better-educated, and working harder, than her brother is.

But the basic premise of all these authors is simply wrong. The rise of women is not to blame for the decline of men. At least three lines of evidence make this clear.

First, the gender gap in motivation is clearly evident by the time kids are 6 years old. Over the past eight years, I have interviewed hundreds of girls and boys, and their teachers, at schools across the United States and Canada, from British Columbia to Florida, from Nova Scotia to California. I have listened to 2nd grade boys who tell me, "School is stupid. School is for girls. School is a waste of time." Teachers who have been in the profession for 20 years or longer tell me that they seldom heard such comments from boys back in the early 1990's; today such comments are common. But it's rare to hear such sentiments from elementary-school girls. I have never heard a 2nd-grade girl say, "School is for boys."

I have asked these young boys why they hate school so much. Not one has responded with any remark suggesting a "cultural uncertainty about the social role of men" - the main factor which Hymowitz & Co believe is responsible. Instead, the boys say things like: "I got in trouble just for throwing snowballs . . .the art teacher didn't like my drawing, she said it was too violent . . .They make us sit still and be quiet all the time, I got sent to the principal's office just for standing up." Forty years ago, boys were allowed to throw snowballs at school. When I was growing up in the 1960's, attending a public school in Ohio (Lomond Elementary), it wasn't unusual for teachers to join us in snowball fights, on school property. That would be unthinkable today. Forty years ago, kindergarten was about playing duck-duck-goose, or singing in rounds. Today, American kindergarten is about learning phonics. Forty years ago, a boy could dress up as a cowboy for the school Halloween party and even bring a plastic gun to school as part of his costume. Today, a 9-year-old boy who brings an obviously fake plastic gun to school for the Halloween party risks disciplinary action.

Second, the gender gap in motivation is not universal. Urban Prep is a public boys' charter school on the South Side of Chicago, serving primarily African-American males from low-income families. The first class graduated last June: 100% of those young men are now attending 4-year colleges or universities. Most of them are the first in their families ever to go to college. A team of administrators from that school gave a presentation at a conference I hosted last October. They described how they work hard to create a "band of brothers" culture: a culture in which it's cool for boys to earn top grades. That's not the culture offered by Akon, 50 Cent, or Eminem. By creating an alternative culture in which being smart raises your status in the eyes of your male peers, these administrators have shown that boys today can achieve at the same level as their sisters.

Third, the same gender gap in motivation is seen in Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, a country which makes no pretence of offering equal rights to women. Despite the oppressiveness of the Qatari patriarchy, roughly 70% of recent graduates from Qatar University have been women. I have corresponded with concerned parents in Qatar who wonder why their daughter works so hard, while their son is unmotivated. Several of these parents have suggested that the problem is the patriarchy. "Our sons get everything handed to them on a plate, while our daughters have to work hard to overcome endless obstacles," one parent told me.

Do you see the problem? Hymowitz and Co want to blame the decline of men on the rise of women. Some parents in Qatar want to put the blame on an all-powerful patriarchy. They are invoking opposite explanations for the same observed phenomenon, namely: girls today have more motivation than their brothers. In fact, neither feminism nor patriarchy is to blame for this phenomenon.

I have spent the past eight years trying to understand the growing gender gap in motivation. There are other factors in play besides those mentioned above. I agree with Hymowitz that the gender gap matters. But if we are going to do something about it, we have to stop blaming successful women for the problems of boys and young men.

Leonard Sax MD PhD is a physician, psychologist, and the author of Boys Adrift: the five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men (Basic Books), and Girls on the Edge (Basic Books, 2010).