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Gender disparity in higher education

Kevin Drum's recent post on the gender gap in higher education -- more women than men are going to college, and women outperform men academically -- has spawned a long comments thread. The general consensus seems to be that there's a cultural (rather than structural or biological) factor at work here.

One popular explanation is that (to put it in crude terms) men are lazy, caring mostly about drinking and video games, whereas women are disciplined and studious. I don't have access to any actual data on whether this is true (I suspect the stereotype exaggerates the difference, but then the enrollment/achievement gap isn't such a yawning chasm either). But I'll grant for the sake of discussion that it's true.

People have generally been treating this as something obviously bad for men. The assumption is that academic success is a measure of how much a person benefitted from college. But there are other skills that one learns at college, skills that are better learned outside the classroom, often in the much-disparaged world of athletics -- interpersonal skills, teamwork, etc. These kind of skills can often be the most crucial in succeeding in the world outside of college. It's your ability to network, not your A in 19th Century French History, that gets you the job at Goldman-Sachs. Perhaps when men are "slacking off", they're building a different set of skills.

If I'm right, the importance of networking on finding jobs, getting promotions, etc. may be a case of structural sexism. Men certainly do better in the post-college world, and I'm skeptical of how much of that is due to simple outright discrimination. Employers look for employees in ways that make it easier for men to succeed, because the culture and structure of the business world have been created and maintained by people who work in a "male" way (whether they be actual males or not -- one bit of actual evidence I do have is that women and minorities who succeed in business and politics are generally those who think and act in a stereotypically white male way).

This idea that women are good at the official purpose of college, whereas men are good at the social purpose, is a sort of reversal of a stereotype. Men are often considered to be good at abstract formal reasoning, whereas women think relationally and socially. By this stereotype, men ought to be better at formal job-acquisition strategies like sending in resumes in response to official job postings, whereas women ought to be better at finding jobs through networking and connections. And maybe they are -- like I said, I have precious little actual data here.

On a slightly different topic, commenter Aurora offers this bit of pessimism:

Maybe -- shoot, I hope I'm wrong, but maybe -- the old egalitarian dream of man and woman standing shoulder-to-shoulder, eyeball-to-eyeball, sharing all the joys and sorrows of life equally, just can't work because men aren't willing to share prestige. As soon as women achieve a certain degree of success in some field or other, regardless of how male-dominated it used to be, the guys seem to just pick up all their marbles and go home -- even if it really fucks their own lives up in the process.

This assessment of the situation is probably true in the near term. It resembles a pessimistic take I had on gay marriage. But I would hope that, like Ampersand's friends who see marriage as devalued because of the exclusion of gays, men's attitudes toward doing "women's work" will change. I know that I, for one, would see a job as less attractive if there were an unjustified dominance of men in it (less so for an unjustified dominance of women, since then my presence would be helping to change things). Then again, maybe I just have a feminine attitude toward work and school -- after all, I spent much more time in college studying than I did drinking and playing video games, whatever some joker at the Maroon-News office thought.


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