The new flexible rules of the future

Boys will be boys, the saying goes.  Sugar and spice and everything nice…

Perhaps not, say experts.

With male-dominated fields like construction now stagnant, however, experts argue that the situation may be reversed: American schools don’t do enough to encourage boys to explore careers in traditionally female-dominated fields, such as health care and education.

* * * *

“My perception over the last 40 years is we’ve provided a lot of support and encouragement for girls to try and take on new things,” [Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar who studies male economic and academic achievement at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education,] said, “but I’ve also seen no special effort to encourage boys to take on different subjects.”

“I’ve tried to say to boys, ‘If you want a good job, think about becoming a nurse’ … but nobody ever introduces boys to entering these traditionally female occupations, and someone needs to do that,” Mr. Mortenson said.

I’m concerned that what’s driving this isn’t any real lack of opportunity for boys, but rather just the empirical lack of male nurses.  In other words, I suspect that “experts” think the lack of male teachers and nurses is because (and only because) boys are discouraged somehow from taking these jobs.  ( They probably are discouraged from teaching by the widespread view of every man as a potential child molester, but that’s another topic.)

But what if they aren’t discouraged, have the opportunity, and simply don’t want to do those jobs?

My suspicion is that experts would find such an explanation unsatisfying.  They would likely argue that some sexist, pervasive social pressure causes them not to want the jobs.  And that should be fixed, no?  The fundamental assumption seems to be that boys and girls are fundamentally the same, and that only our differential treatment of them is responsible for a host of disparities: discipline differentials in  school, a lack of male nurses, etc.

In the first place, I question whether this is true.  But so long as no one is being prevented from doing what they want, I don’t see the problem even if it is true.   Look to hiring practices first, if you think there’s a problem.  It’s like a restaurant filled with only white people: as long as no one is being denied service or being treated differently because of race, who cares if Mexican Americans aren’t into the daily fare?

The following, in particular, bothered me:

Educators and parents alike often overemphasize the importance of gender-based differences, rather than looking at variation among individual children, particularly when it comes to gender stereotypes such as boys being aggressive or slower readers, according to Lise S. Elliot, an associate professor in neuroscience at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago, Ill., and author of the 2009 book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps, and What We Can Do About It.

“When you see a sex difference in the brain, you assume it’s biological and hard-wired,” Ms. Elliot said at a May research panel in Chicago on sex differences in cognition. “It’s not.”

Rather, Ms. Elliot argued, neurological brain differences are tiny at birth. In their infant and toddler years, boys are as likely to differ from other boys as from girls in, for example, language skills or physical assertiveness.

Think about what she said for a moment: “brain differences are tiny at birth.”  Well… yeah.  All the differences are smaller at birth.  That’s because birth is a whole hell of a lot closer to conception, where the difference between a boy and a girl can be expressed in terms of a few million (admittedly complex) molecules.  Strength differences are smaller at birth, too. No one argues that men aren’t different (not better!) than women in terms of strength.

It takes time for differences to express themselves, and the differences increase as differentiated hormonal systems (which themselves take time to develop) start to kick in, releasing hormones that (gasp!) alter brain chemistry.  Eliot is a neuroscientist.  She is not a moron and she knows this.  Yet the implication of the article is stark: the brains are the same — just look at the babies — and it’s our screwed up social practices that are the problem.

There are four possibilities: (1) Sarah Sparks (the author of the article) just isn’t intellectually equipped to report on what a neuroscientist says and misunderstood; (2) Sarah Sparks is being dishonest about what Eliot said and leaving out key context to push an agenda in her article; (3) Michael Lopez is a moron and learned his science wrong; or (4) Eliot is dishonest and is using her position as a scientist to mispresent facts in order to further political ends.

Number (3) is an attractive option, mostly because it’s so plausible.  But given that the title of Eliot’s book is “How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps”, I’m inclined to think that number (4) is just as likely.  As a result, I’ll voice my suspicions, yet suspend final judgment.   And to be fair, the article did say this:

According to Ms. Elliot’s research, parent and teacher communication and relationships with students can make a bigger difference in students’ language and social development for academic achievement than biological sex differences.

So Eliot’s argument is actually something like, “Well, differences in nurture or more important, so that’s where we should focus our efforts.”  But still, that’s not the same as saying that the natural differences are trivial or unimportant, which is the clear implication of the rest of her statements.

The bottom line is that  I’m not willing to assume that every difference is, per se, a problem.  School discipline might be a problem, but is it a problem of sexism?

I’d be SHOCKED if boys weren’t more likely to be expelled; I’d think someone had it in for girls.   Now maybe we think that too many boys are being suspended or expelled, and that this is having a really bad effect on their development.  But in a world where every spitball is treated as a hanging offense, well, your problem is in the penalties, not sex discrimination.


  1. Cranberry says:

    According to reports released at the forum, by secondary school, 54.7 percent of girls receive “mostly A’s” on their report cards, compared to 40 percent of boys.

    What the? There’s a problem right there. There’s no way it’s appropriate for more than 40 percent of the school population to receive “mostly As.” Either the grading’s too lenient, or the work’s too easy, or the administration lacks a spine.

    Second, “construction now stagnant?” Well, it’s stagnant for economic reasons. That doesn’t mean that a bricklayer will be more fulfilled teaching elementary art.

    Boys are not defective girls. Men are not defective women.

  2. High school teaching used to be a profession that attracted a somewhat more balanced ratio of men & women, but seems to have tipped female in recent years.

    I think a strong factor is because It’s much harder to support a family on a teacher’s salary now vs. a couple of decades ago. In the town where I grew up, a husband and wife who were both teachers used to be able to afford to buy an entry level home on their combined salaries. The home where I grew up was located in a neighborhood nicknamed “teachers’ row” because so many of the town’s teachers lived there. On my street alone lived my 8th grade English teacher, my 6th grade Social Studies teacher, my brother’s 3rd grade teacher, my youngest brother’s 2nd grade teacher, and several others. But after the real estate booms of the ’80’s, and the mid-90’s to mid-2000’s, those houses got to be way too expensive for a pair of teachers to buy.

    The only young teachers I know now living in my hometown are a handful of female ones married to professionals with high-paying jobs (doctor/lawyer/business executive/etc.)

    My IL’s are both teachers, and it’s been interesting to observe that they pushed their daughter to go into teaching but not their sons. The unspoken presumption is that SIL will have a husband to support her so it doesn’t matter if she’s in a relatively low-paying field.

  3. The achievement gap which has been ranted on by feminazis over the last 20 years is a blatant myth. In today’s schools and colleges, females are excelling in education, and males are becoming stigmatized as the class ‘f**kup’ (in my day, we had a few of those, and everyone knew what they were about).

    In college, more women attend college and earn degrees than men do. In high school, by the time a male (should he manage to graduate) is at least 1.5 to 2 grade levels behind females in reading/writing and math.

    Groups like AAUW (American Assoc. of University Women) and others ‘downplay’ the actual issues, and say that they’re not interested in a ‘zero-sum’ game with true equality for males and females in schools. I guess males in the US are destined to be ostracized when it comes to education.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ummm… Bill? You know that the article and the forum it references were both about helping men address these gaps, right? It seems like you might have misread what was written, although I suppose it’s possible I’m not understanding your comment completely.

  5. I vote for #4 (I read Eliot’s book). But then, I’m a math BS, turned programmer, turned lawyer, turned diplomat, turned stay-at-home homeschooling mom who is sick of the feminist push to get girls to choose science degrees and put careers over family life. I choose personal fulfillment, which I experience far more in my current life than I ever had working out proofs or coding.

  6. wahoofive says:

    I’m sympathetic to Michael’s critique, but this cuts both ways. If there are fewer females in investment banking, or construction, or politics, is it safe to assume that’s entirely the result of sexism? That’s been our operation assumption so far. What are the implications for affirmative action if we accept Michael’s position (that some differences may be hard-wired)?

    And most people probably agree with Michael on some level. How often have you heard someone say “if women ran the world, things would be different.” Doesn’t that imply that women actually think differently than men?

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    “don’t want”? “don’t want”? What kind of nonsense is this?
    if the numbers are not as the activists think they should be, “don’t want” is not an issue.

  8. dangermom says:

    “So Eliot’s argument is actually something like, “Well, differences in nurture or more important, so that’s where we should focus our efforts.” But still, that’s not the same as saying that the natural differences are trivial or unimportant, which is the clear implication of the rest of her statements.”

    True, but Eliot’s argument is kind of weird anyway. It’s not like we can do anything about nature. Nurture is the only part we can influence, so of course we should focus our efforts there. Where else would our efforts go?

  9. The issue was that women’s groups put so much pressure on trying to close an achievement gap for females (which would have closed on it’s own given time) that males were virtually left to fend for themselves in school. It’s going to take MANY years to get males to where they are supposed to be, educationally.

    Sad commentary on the trends in education, but I’ve watched this nation over the last 35 years education wise, and we’ve pretty much lost a lot of ground (scandals, test score cheating, grade inflation, students graduating without the skills to succeed in society, etc)…where will it all end…