“I don’t think anyone will deny that girls are academically superior as a group. Girls are more academically powerful. They make the grades, they run the student activities, they are the valedictorians.” – Christina Hoff Sommers, Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
Social and economic changes in the 21st century have changed the traditional roles of men. In 2010, a United States Department of Labor report revealed that about half of the U.S. workforce is now comprised of women. The report also stated that the unemployment rate for women (8.6%) was significantly lower than the unemployment rate for men (10.5%.) Most surprisingly, the median weekly earnings in 2010 were about the same for young men and women, the first time that has ever happened. A 2010 Time Magazine article reported that in 147 of the 150 largest U.S. cities, the median salary for women was 8% higher than the median salary for men.
Education is the primary impetus for these changes, and women are succeeding in higher education at far higher rates. A 2006 New York Times article found that only 42% of students in college in 2006 were male, and that number has likely decreased by now. Women are graduating with honors or greater degrees at far higher rates than men: in 2005, women earned 50% more master’s degrees than men. Currently, about three-fifths of all college degrees are awarded to women. Men also face far higher rates of disciplinary problems and incarceration throughout their educational career, potentially making their road to a college degree far more difficult.
Recent changes to the economy have also affected men. In September 2012, a New York Times article reported that men suffered about 80% of the job losses in the recent recession. The shift away from a traditionally-male manufacturing and heavy-labor economy has also contributed to the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among men.
Considering that a large aspect of masculinity in the past century has been based around the role of men as providers and protectors, the 21st-century image of masculinity will need to evolve to accommodate these changes. The idea that men are always the primary breadwinners in the household will likely have to disappear in the near future, as there is no indication that this percentage will remain stagnant. For example, in 2010, 30% of women earned more than their husbands.
What is particularly problematic is the inability of men to evolve to meet the new demands of the changing culture. In a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 77% of Americans thought that college education is necessary for a woman to get ahead in life, but only 68% thought the same for a man. Many analysts have claimed that the achievement gap for men is a myth, citing statistics that boys are performing better than ever on some standardized tests, especially in mathematics sections. However, 25% of all boys leave high school without ever becoming proficient readers. Additionally, studies have shown that the high performance of boys on standardized mathematics tests is due to the disproportionate performances of a small group of boys, and masks the high numbers of boys who are actually struggling in math.
William Pollack, director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, cites a “lack of focus” as the primary cause for the achievement gap. A 2011 CNN article reported that men between the ages of 18 and 34 spend more time playing video games than 12 to 17 year-old boys. For many men, these video games offer an effective escape from the troubles of living in the increasingly complex real world.
Recent pop culture may also exacerbate some of the changes in the common view of masculinity. Films like The Expendables and Taken portray men in an overly violent, simplistic, and anti-intellectual manner. The recent rise in popularity of superhero movies, which generally portray male leads who use physical force and supernatural abilities to solve their problems, also does not depict a realistic and emulatable form of masculinity.
One possible “solution” to the male achievement gap lies in reforming education–especially early education. A recent PBS study examined elementary school classrooms and found them to be evolving to become more and more disadvantageous to boys. The study found that elementary school classrooms are four-fifths language-based, a topic that girls are traditionally stronger in. It also noted that boys have trouble sitting for long periods of time, and struggle with recent cutbacks to recess and hands-on learning opportunities.
The study noted that men comprised only 16% of elementary school teachers, making it more difficult for boys to find role models in the classroom. Finally, it pointed out the emphasis on first-person narratives or diaries over science fiction and comic books, which young boys are usually more interested in. Programs like “No Child Left Behind,” which emphasizes an early focus on literature, have inadvertently hurt boys. Fortunately, most of these problems can easily be assuaged with a more balanced and varied curriculum.
Another avenue that can assist the closing of the male achievement gap is popular culture. Despite the recent spike in high-grossing films that glorify the violent actions of male leads, many male actors have also begun to embrace either the familial or intellectual aspects of masculinity.
Brad Pitt, once seen primarily as a sex symbol, has reinvented himself as a family man. Talking about his experiences in 2012, People magazine quoted Pitt as saying, “It’s been a family type of year, a down-home type of year.”
The rise in popularity of more intellectual actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt also contrast with the hyper-physical and violent roles played by other male actors.
For example, Gordon-Levitt has been quoted as saying: “The whole concept of celebrity pisses me off. While I’m not a celebrity, it’s such a weird concept that society has cooked up for us. Astronauts and teachers are much more amazing than actors.”
The rise of the family man and the intellectual man bode well for closing the achievement gap–– they are both realistic and socially extolled men in the real world, and possible role models for boys who do well or want to do well in school.