Male Underachievement and the Gender Turf Wars
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Male Underachievement and the Gender Turf Wars

Ari David Blaff
Ari David Blaff
9 min read

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), a non-profit education organization, published a report earlier this year that ought to have alarmed many Americans. Compared to the prior semester, the decline in male university enrollment was double that of women:

Enrollment declines are steeper for men than for women across all sectors (declined by 400,000 and 203,000 students, respectively). This trend is especially visible in the community college sector, with male enrollment dropping by 14.4 percent compared to a 6 percent decline in female enrollment. Also, the increase of 44,000 female students (+1 percent) is contrasted with a drop of 90,000 male students (-2.7 percent) in the public four-year institution sector.

If this trend continues, an NSC executive confirmed, “In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man.”

This isn’t news, however. While COVID-19 has played a major part in the overall decline in enrollment, the unfortunate reality is that boys and men have been struggling academically for decades. Male and female academic performance began to diverge in the 1950s:

The Harvard economist Richard Murnane has tracked high school graduation rates since the 1970s and concluded that men have essentially stagnated at around 80 percent (slightly below the ~85 percent indicated by the table above), while women continued to rise, today approaching 90 percent. Women are the principal reason that national graduation rates are up.

The educational advancement of women is strange when viewed alongside the floundering of men. By the end of the 2021 academic year, roughly 60 percent of all college students—a record high—will be women. Estimates from the American Student Government Association now peg female leadership at around 60 percent of all student body presidents and 74 percent of vice presidents. Douglas Belkin recently explored these issues in the Wall Street Journal and found that, of the 1.5 million fewer aspiring students who colleges drew in the past five years, 70 percent of the decline was attributed to men. “[H]igher education’s dirty little secret,” as one consultant called it, is now so bad that certain schools have quietly implemented an “affirmative action for boys” to balance the groaning gender disparity.

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This is an unwelcome development for boys already struggling to tread water alongside resilient girls. Boys, particularly black boys, are disciplined at higher levels than girls. In 2017, a team of researchers led by MIT economist David Autor analyzed a decade of Florida schooling records from 1992 to 2002 which revealed that boys were penalized more frequently. Rather than simply comparing gender disparities in suspensions and school absence, the group analyzed brothers and sisters from identical households and discovered that boys received more suspensions and were absent more often despite hailing from the same social environment. Summarizing the research, Jeff Guo wrote in the Washington Post, “It’s not yet clear why girls are so tough, but they seem much better suited to the challenges of modern childhood.” Indeed, childhood adversity holds long-term negative influences for male development to which women appear to be far less susceptible.

These findings were echoed in a study by Brown University’s Jayanti Owens in 2016 that found four- and five-year-old boys were “less likely to learn and more likely to be held back in school” than girls for exhibiting similar misbehaviour. Despite boys exhibiting higher rates of maladaptive behaviour such as difficulty paying attention, “regulating emotions, delaying gratification, and forming positive relationships with teachers and peers,” when such traits manifested appeared in girls, they were treated differently. “Implicit stereotypes,” Owens writes, “may lead to increased grade retention and disproportionately harsh discipline, such as school suspension or expulsion, which in turn are associated with lowered achievement and, ultimately, attainment.”

Since boys are also expelled more, they spend less time in classrooms learning, accelerating the already yawning educational gap behind studious girls. While a host of factors contribute to the ongoing academic struggle of boys—such as single-parent households and the disproportionate influence of low socioeconomic status—administrative discipline compounds these underlying issues. Taken together, boys’ behavioural issues alongside educators’ unequal treatment, Owens estimates, account for nearly 60 percent “of the gender gap in schooling.”

Nor is America exceptional in this regard. Across the mostly developed Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), boys are lagging behind girls. A meta-analysis led by a team of Australian academics concluded, “Overall, girls had significantly higher grades than boys by 6.3 percent.” Likewise, male enrollment throughout the OECD has been largely declining since the 1980s.

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The accomplishments of women across the developed world over the past century are truly remarkable and merit acknowledgment. Issues along socioeconomic and racial lines linger, but the trajectory of female inroads in education and employment has blazed a trail for women to achieve a level of success, independence, and autonomy unthinkable even two generations ago.

The same cannot be said of men. Lost education and lost prestige have been exacerbated by an inability to discuss men’s issues thoughtfully. Partly, this is a by-product of the toxicity found in certain corners of the men’s rights movement. However, much of it comes from the corrosiveness of gender politics. Modern Americans struggle to square the stereotype of white male privilege with what the title of Warren Farrell’s brilliant book calls The Boy Crisis.

Speaking with Jerlando Jackson, a department chair at the University of Wisconsin, Douglas Belkin writes that many campuses avoid the issue altogether because of bad optics. “[F]ew campuses have been willing to spend limited funds on male underachievement that would also benefit white men, risking criticism for assisting those who have historically held the biggest educational advantages.” Jackson, an African American academic, argues, “As a country, we don’t have the tools yet to help white men who find themselves needing help … To be in a time when there are groups of white men that are falling through the cracks, it’s hard.” Another issue Belkin highlights has been studied by Keith Smith, a mental health counselor at the University of Vermont. Smith found that men face disproportionate disciplinary consequences for misbehaviour while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. As a result, he proposed the creation of a men’s center catered to helping them through the difficulties of university. Women on campus were having none of it. Smith reported that “Why would you give more resources to the most privileged group on campus?” was a common objection.

Unboxing the illusion of male academic privilege is something that should have been done decades ago. Beyond the extensively documented academic decline of men across most developed nations, boys are far more likely to be disciplined, face expulsion, and therefore lose valuable time learning. Accordingly, boys “report significantly higher rates of grade repetition (by 4.5 percentage points) and lower educational expectations.” These problems are compounded by boys being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at four times the rate of girls, with the former representing a comfortable majority of special education students. By 2018, when Stanford researchers released a landmark study assessing 10,000 of the country’s 12,000 school districts from 2008 to 2014, the findings could not have been clearer. “In no district,” the New York Times summarized, “do boys, on average, do as well or better than girls in English and language arts. In the average district girls perform about three-quarters of a grade level ahead of boys.” By comparison, gender parity in math scores has largely been achieved, though in some districts boys outperform girls.

Researchers place the roots of academic divergence around the fourth grade as reading habits solidify amongst girls and wither for boys. This produces dramatic consequences for their development as girls subsequently consume approximately 100,000 more words per year than boys. To say, then, that boys and men are “the most privileged group on campus” is to be intellectually stuck in the America of a century ago.

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Unfortunately, it’s such outdated thinking that has left Americans incapable of understanding any issue affecting men beyond hot-take headlines. The reality of boys struggling throughout the educational pipeline is all the more uncomfortable given that these academic environments can be most hostile to them. Gender studies academics who decry “bro culture” and “patriarchy” ignore the tragic condition of some boys today. This enables activist scholars to dismiss reforms that may be beneficial. For instance, the gender reading gap converges later on in earlier adulthood. According to an OECD working paper, once boys and girls “leave compulsory schooling and have greater opportunities to choose their own reading materials or are required to read at the workplace,” they display similar reading skills. So, perhaps greater educational flexibility through revising assigned reading lists would address male reading underperformance better than claptrap about patriarchy and privilege.

Exploring the issue of gender representation at the teaching level could also be an interesting avenue for further inquiry. Since the late-20th century, teaching has actually become more gendered, skewing female. Whereas two-thirds of public-school teachers in the early ‘80s were women, by the 2010s that had crept up to three-quarters. Coupled with the stigmatization male teachers face in a predominantly female profession, we should consider whether the absence of male role models influences the outcome of impressionable boys. After all, racial disparities are shown to have an educational impact. Research from the Brookings Institute notes that the implications have yet to be determined for the teaching gender gap but such questions, once again, fall outside the purview of activists searching for a male bogeyman.

Christina Hoff Sommers documented much of this two decades ago in her seminal work, The War on Boys. “Schools shortchange girls,” the American Association of University Women then declared. Patricia O'Reilly, a professor of education and director of the Gender Equity Center at the University of Cincinnati, argued, “It is really clear that boys are no. 1 in this society and in most of the world.” Evidently, having a ringside seat to the unfolding crisis doesn’t move certain educators. Moreover, these very people have promoted an academic environment in which universities stumble over one another to announce funding, grants, and initiatives for women, while carefully avoiding the third rail of male academic failure.

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The good news is that the issues affecting boys today are not the result of female success; the levers by which we can help men should not come at the expense of women. But that is precisely how gender equality discussions have been framed. The website of the global humanitarian organization Plan International has a page dedicated to explaining “a Man’s Role in Gender Equality Activism” which opens with an instruction that men must acknowledge their privilege. While it is demanded that men “stand with women and girls in their daily struggles for the eradication of patriarchal, sexist, and misogynist constructs,” there’s no mention of the hurdles men face. To suggest that boys might not have it all made within such circles is tantamount to sexism.

This zero-sum competition for sympathy and attention has distorted our ability to be compassionate. Look no further than the well-established fact that men commit the overwhelming majority of suicides across the globe. Instead of addressing the topic as part of a gender equality movement by advocating on behalf of struggling men, the Australian charity, One Woman Project, published a 2019 blog post (since deleted, archived here) entitled, “The Gender Disparity in Suicidality is a Myth.” Eleanor McKelvey, the organization's Head of Online Engagement, writes: “[W]hilst it is true that 75 percent of deaths from suicide in Australia are male; suicidality is not an exclusively male epidemic. Women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men.” What exactly is she fighting about? It seems that the problem is understood as a contest in which the winner is determined by whoever has the more distressing suicide statistics. Distastefully, McKelvey uses the tragedy of male suicide to crowbar in the gratuitous assertion that “young, white, straight cis-men have not been the primary victims of our historically ignorant stance on mental health.” This is the politics of resentment at its worst.

That same year, the Washington Post ran an op-ed entitled, “Why the Patriarchy Is Killing Men,” about this very issue. This is in keeping with incendiary tweets sent by Chidera Eggerue, another prominent feminist commentator, following a question about male suicide. “If men are committing suicide because they can’t cry,” she wrote, “how’s it my concern?” Eggerue insisted that the comments served a higher cause. “My points run deeper and I’m requesting that we create a dialogue about the bigger issue of patriarchy.” If dying men are a political football to gender equality activists, imagine the controversy helping men on campuses would provoke.

The taboo against humanizing the struggles of boys and men must end. True gender equality activists should re-commit themselves to the principle embodied in their name. When we see young men, regardless of race or ethnicity, struggling in school while their female peers glide past them, we should help them, not condemn or belittle them as progressive activists have tended to do. Young boys will be the true victims, falling ever-further behind, if these gender turf wars thwart our ability to speak to and hear one another.


Ari David Blaff

Ari David Blaff is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. His writings have appeared in National Review, Tablet, and Israel Studies. He can be contacted at