Written by Alexander Pralea ‘24
Edited by Angelina Cho ‘24
Boys are falling behind in the classroom. This may be surprising to many readers; after all, women comprise just 7.4% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, and more broadly make 19% less than do men in the United States  . Increasingly, however, it looks like the oft-repeated feminist slogan, “the future is female,” is being actualized, just not in the way many of its proponents had anticipated.
From birth, sex differences in health measurements appear, laying the groundwork for slower psychosocial development and eventually worse educational outcomes among boys. One longitudinal study conducted in Finland tracked the health outcomes of 99.9% of Finnish babies born in 1987 until they reached age 7, determining that, relative to girls, boys were 20% more likely to have low Apgar scores (a quantifiable measure of a newborn’s health) five minutes post-birth, 11% more likely to be born preterm, 43% more likely to have an intellectual disability, and 22% more likely to die, all of which culminated in postponed social development as they entered school .
Cognitive neuroscience studies confirm epidemiological and clinical findings, indicating potential biological mechanisms of cognitive differentiation. Studies of synaptic pruning, the natural process by which excess synapses are eliminated as children grow, have long indicated its importance in making neural circuits more efficient well into adolescence, thereby improving cognitive performance. A 2013 study by neuroscientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom built on this body of research by studying “preferential detachment”– the highly selective process in which the long-distance connections in the brain necessary for efficient information processing are maintained. Although overall white matter is lost, this process occurs earlier among girls, resulting in their earlier maturity . Given that sex differences are present by the second day after conception and a whole host of hormones masculinize the male brain beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy, there is reason to believe that these aforementioned brain differences are largely induced through complex biochemical cascades .
The organizational structure of school, as well as the impact of gender socialization, adds to these disparities, demonstrating the importance of fully considering the “nurture” side of the nature-nurture coin. As noted earlier, boys have much higher rates of hyperactivity; the traditional structure of school, in which students are expected to stay seated for extended periods of time and follow concrete directions, suits the strengths of girls, who because of earlier maturity and gender socialization, are better at following activities demanding better self-control (it should be noted that self-control, alongside overall intelligence measured by one’s IQ, is among the largest predictors of long-term success, independent of sex)  . In turn, low achievers in all subjects are disproportionately male, according to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a study of educational outcomes among fifteen-year-olds coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group of highly developed nations . Other statistics provided by PISA 2018 reinforce that boys are falling behind academically. Although differences in STEM performance are mostly insignificant, with boys slightly outperforming girls in mathematics and girls slightly outperforming boys in science, the sex differences in reading are large and drastic. These differential outcomes are reinforced in interests; 20% more girls than boys consider reading a hobby, and 43% of girls compared to 25% of boys read thirty minutes or more a day.
Overall, the available data suggest that boys just dislike school at much higher rates than do girls, yet little is done to make it more engaging for them and boost their intrinsic motivation toward academic success. The prevalence of chronic truancy and reduced effort in homework reflects that for boys, an interest in schoolwork is perceived as “uncool,” a loss of engagement that first emerges in surveys by age eight. By age ten, 40% of boys are “disaffected,” disappointed,” or “disappeared,” attitudes that lead to dropping out or to feeling deeply dissatisfied with school. Boys are much more likely to declare that “school has done little to prepare [them] for adult life when [they] leave school” and that “school has been a waste of time, ” likely resulting in a reduced enthusiasm to pursue tertiary education .
An analysis of the admissions policies of Brown and other comparable universities emphasizes that colleges are aware of this phenomenon, yet attempt to compensate by accepting men at higher rates in an effort to maintain as close to a 50-50 demographic split as possible. In her noteworthy 2006 exposé, “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected,” former dean of admissions at Kenyon College Jennifer Britz apologized to all the high-performing female applicants whom she had rejected or waitlisted in an attempt to boost male enrollment . She spoke of the idea of a demographic tipping point, the implicit rule among college admissions officers that when a college exceeds a 3:2 female-to-male ratio, it becomes perceived as less desirable for applicants of both sexes. At Brown University, for example, an article in The Brown Daily Herald from 2016 detailed how, for the past fifteen years, the acceptance rate for male applicants had been three to four points higher than that for female applicants; if men and women had been accepted at equal rates, the school would have reached that 3:2 tipping point given that fifty percent more women apply than men .
Still, in spite of these admissions policies, women make up a disproportionate percentage of graduates of post-secondary education, a disparity, which according to the Department of Education, is only going to heighten in years to come. The most recent data from 2018 indicate that women make up 59% of all post-secondary graduates, with women obtaining 61% of Associate’s degrees, 57% of Bachelor’s degrees, 59% of Master’s degrees, and 53% of doctoral degrees . By 2027, the Department of Education estimates that women will make up more than 60% of all post-secondary graduates, with the sex imbalance increasing in Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and Master’s programs. Fields historically regarded as predominantly male, such as law and medicine, are undergoing demographic shifts as majority-female classes begin practicing; even the MBA, the gateway degree for almost historically entirely male C-suite positions, has begun to diversify, with 39% of enrolled students in MBA programs being women  .
It is important to note, that after both sexes join the labor force, and in particular after women have their first child, these classroom disparities between men and women evaporate, resulting in most post-adult disparities favoring men in what the psychologist Susan Pinker has famously called the “sexual paradox” in her eponymous book . Clearly, contradictory data do not allow for a simple, straightforward story, and these data of girls outperforming boys only apply in developed nations, not in developing nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in which girls are routinely denied access to an education . Still, within the Western world at least, we must be attuned to the fact that our current educational system is failing boys. While seemingly intractable cultural shifts are needed to make young boys understand that succeeding in school is laudable, we must also recognize that pioneering new, sex-aware educational delivery mechanisms based on findings from cognitive neuroscience and other life sciences may be the key to better integrating boys (and girls). For example, the aforementioned PISA reports have detailed that boys, relative to girls, enjoy comics and newspapers more than traditional books, and enjoy competition and other forms of extrinsic motivation. Future randomized trials could evaluate the efficacy of these strategies, but the main point is that, in the new era of data, we must respond to a widely recorded and seemingly intractable problem, not just shrug it off. The risks of not taking action will continue to grow in years to come, so we must take action immediately, or we will face the consequences of entire generations of demotivated, underachieving boys.
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