Anything I can do, you can do better…

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting report today on a new book by Linda J. Sax called The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men (2008), which offers a great deal of evidence on the so-called gender gap among college students:

The book’s purpose, [Sax] writes, is to “add context to what have become oversimplified but popular messages — that gender equity has been achieved, that women are an academic success story, and that men are experiencing an educational crisis. There is some truth to each of these messages, but they tend to convey the status of women and men as a zero-sum game.” The more nuanced reality, she writes, is that there are problems facing both men and women — and educators need to acknowledge and respond to these differences.

It sounds like a sensible feminist project to me–collect some real data, and see where that leads us.  Here’s a sad fact that may help explain both women’s achievement in college, and men’s lack of ambition or initiative in the event they get to college:

Self-Confidence of First-Year College Students by Gender, 2006

Academic Skill    

% of Women Who ThinkThey Are Above Average % of Men Who ThinkThey Are Above Average
Intellectual self-confidence 52.2% 68.8%
Mathematical ability 35.9% 53.1%
Academic ability 65.9% 71.9%
Writing ability 49.3% 45.7%

Depressing, isn’t it?  Gee, I wonder where the students get these attitudes?  (I’d also like to see how these questions breakdown according to race as well as sex.)  Oh, and here’s a fun fact to bring up at your first search committee meeting this fall:

One finding in particular is striking, given the debates about affirmative action and the importance of diversifying the faculty, which was once overwhelmingly male. The data suggest a direct relationship, Sax writes, between institutions having larger proportions of female students and faculty members and all students — males too — performing better academically. While noting that the data do not suggest why this is the case, Sax urges researchers to explore the reasons for this relationship.

Why would that be, I wonder?  Perhaps the mere fact of seriously considering a wider number of applications for faculty positions–that is, making the search pool more competitive–yields more competitive faculty who thereby challenge the students more?  Do women on the faculty encourage women students to up their games, which then inspires the male students to do better?  (It’s hard to say without seeing what’s being measured as “performing better academically”–is that measured merely with grades, or with LSAT or GRE scores, or by other measures?)

Finally, here’s one of my favorite nuggets from this veritable bag of salted peanut-like data points:  “both male and female students are least likely to do well at large public universities.”  Well, duh!  I think someone else made this point rather fulsomely nearly six months ago.  (Rather brilliantly, I might add.)

0 thoughts on “Anything I can do, you can do better…

  1. This is interesting. I’m still trying to compile data about gender ratios in our History major program as against the universitywide population. Preliminary findings–based on mypem electronic gradebooks since 2000–suggest a U-wide population about 60% female, (all students except history majors have to take our general ed. history course) as against about 26% female in the courses we erroneously denominate “majors’ courses,” but actually to say, history courses. Data on majors in a single cohort year (this one) are still being analyzed. And yeah, nine of the last ten hires from open searches (this excludes adjuncts and noncompetitive conversions from temporary to tenure track status) have been men. Any preliminary conclusions will be reported to this blog first. Data on comparative performance, much less attitudinal variations, are likely to be much longer in the pipeline, if forthcoming at all.


  2. This is indeed interesting — I’ll have to check it out for the next time that someone starts spouting about the boy crisis in higher ed.

    One thing that I’ve noticed, and that might affect performance: female students ask for help more often. Actually, “more often” is a serious understatement; my male students almost never ask for help, unless it’s a deadline extension. This probably has something to do with the part of American masculinity that centers on self-reliance, but I think this may be an issue.


  3. Notorious, I think that’s a great thought that masculinity and self-reliance (as well as self-confidence) are interrelated. Interesting how their lower grades and performance don’t translate into lower pay or less access to the levers of power after college, though. If and when that happens, boy howdy we’ll have a boy crisis on our hands! (But I’m not holding my breath.)

    And, Indyanna: 9 out of 10 hires? Man, that’s striking. You almost have to want to hire that many men!


  4. And isn’t the problem all about description in a way?

    Are the women *less* confident? Or is it that the men are *too* confident? What exactly is the baseline? [Shouldn’t only about 50% think they are “above average” for that term to be meaningful?]

    Maybe the gals have the right mind-set and it’s the guys who need correcting. Thinking too highly of oneself is a sure way to failing to meet expectations [thus leading to that so-called “boy crisis” Notorious PhD noted above]. “Cool pose” arrogance might be how young men are shooting themselves in the educational foot.


  5. Hi, The_Myth–I agree that male overconfidence is more dangerous to men’s GPAs, but I also think that women’s underconfidence is also a problem. But, you’re right–the women’s “scores” on the chart above are closer to 50% than the men’s scores in all but one category (math skills).

    But, isn’t this the Lake Woebegon generation, where “all the children are above average?” Maybe we need to adjust the curve here…


  6. On hires, it’s perplexing. I’ve looked hard and can’t say I’ve seen any evidence, even subtle, of willful partiality. But outcomes are outcomes, as they say in the assessment business. The people in question are not Nascar Daddies, and it’s not a frathouse atmosphere. Prior to this run, four women were hired in a row in three years, and with small samples or universes there can be pendulum swings. We’ve had women chair searches, and in at least one occasion the initial offer was to a female candidate, who went elsewhere. But in the end, norms are moving points on a continuum and reality does start to reify itself. And it can’t be denied that when you get a lack of diverse perspectives the oxygen gets sucked out of the room quicker than you can imagine.

    Will try to report on the gender ratios, between the institutional universe and the departmental experience. I don’t think it can be claimed that History is like aeronautical engineering, with a deep backstory of selective recruitment and reinforcement. This is a former Normal School, for god’s sake, with a large ongoing stake in teacher education. Scanning a list on the wall of majors and their advisors, I don’t think the skew will be as radical as in my prior note, but it does seem to be there. Film at eleven, I guess you’d say.


  7. Unfortunately, Indyanna, I think spousal issues still limit women more than men, which means that universities outside of major metro areas (like yours and mine) have a harder time recruiting women faculty. I have very mixed feelings about this–on the one hand, why can’t universities recognize that spousal issues are a drag on recruitment in general, and do something for incoming faculty spouses/partners. On the other hand, I wish more male partners were equally willing to move to support their female partners’ careers. (And I wonder: why do women continue to reward selfish jerks by marrying them? But that’s only when I’m feeling especially cranky.)


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