“We have told today’s young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How’s that for an unintended consequence of the women’s liberation movement?” Britz wrote.
It was the most public broaching of the issue up to that time, and Britz bore the brunt of the reaction.
“I was getting about five-hundred e-mails a day, at first, and people still bring it up,” she said. “Feminists were mad. Men were mad. A young woman brought up the issue during an interview in Hong Kong. And my daughter even got a death threat. I hadn’t really known the power of the truth.”
Britz remains sanguine about the gender issue at Kenyon because the college receives ample applications from qualified young men and the female-to-male ratio (55-45) is acceptable. But, she said, she’s concerned about the broader societal implications of the gender gap—and boys apparently lagging academically.
“The women’s movement has definitely leveled the playing field, but cultural factors also come into play. Girls are rewarded for doing well in school.”
- Mark Tappan, professor and chair of the Education Program
“Something is awry with our K-through-twelve educational system,” Britz said. Some admissions officials, including Katie Fretwell, director of admissions at Amherst, feel that boys simply mature later than girls. When considering young men, Fretwell and others look at academic potential in addition to past achievement.
Others say there is more going on than differing rates of maturation. One researcher noted that there is no literacy gap in home-schooled students, because home-schooling parents tend to teach to a child’s interests—and boys’ interests are different from those of girls.
“The women’s movement has definitely leveled the playing field, but cultural factors also come into play,” said Tappan. “Girls are rewarded for doing well in school. For boys, it’s not cool to be good in school.”
That should come as no surprise, said Margaret McFadden, associate professor of American studies. As barriers to female success are taken down and strong role models are produced, more girls are making use of expanded opportunities.
McFadden, who has written extensively on pop culture, said the change also directly relates to boys being saturated with negative role models by an increasingly pervasive media.
“Part of what we’re seeing as a model for masculinity in all of those areas of popular culture is very, very limited and is very anti-intellectual,” she said. “It’s about physical prowess, it’s about muscles, it’s about sexuality—and a very oppressive version of sexuality, a kind of domination of women.”
McFadden points to the popularity of “frat-pack” films that show young men to be bumbling but appealing—and matched with high-achieving women. “I don’t think there are a lot of models for brainiac macho men,” she said.
Tappan adds another theory to the gender discrepancy. “We still live in a patriarchal society,” he said. “Boys figure that they don’t have to try as hard, because they’ll do alright anyway.”