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Failing Boys: Part 1 of 6

Part 1: Failing boys and the powder keg of sexual politics Add to ...

Compelling statistics show boys rank behind girls by nearly every measure of scholastic achievement, yet the phenomenon is as polarizing as it is puzzling. Part 1 of a six-part series.

In 1998, when stories about schools short-changing girls still played in the press, and research continued to chronicle the gender bias against females in the classroom, some of Canada’s leading educational publishers began revising their standard science textbooks for Grades 7 through 10.

Several studies had faulted textbooks for pushing sexist stereotypes of Dick and Jane, driving girls away from certain subjects, science in particular. Mindful of that, publishers instructed their contributors to feature girls prominently in the revised editions.

“If you had a picture of a person doing something positive, winning a race, performing an experiment successfully, etc., [you had to] make sure it was of a girl,” said one of the consultants involved in the revisions. “If you had to have a picture of someone doing a bad thing – bullying, making a mistake, being unsure which course of action to take, etc. – the image was invariably of a boy.”

The consultant, who asked that his name be withheld to protect his employment, said the intentions were good but perhaps the pendulum swung too far. “The side effect was to show the boys that they are rarely winners and we expect less of them,” he said. “The unstated assumption was that boys did not need the same degree of encouragement.”

Just 12 years later, the assumption seems as dated as the strap. Boys have been recast as the underdogs of academics. It’s a controversial shift – fuelling a complex battle of the sexes – but these days boys are the ones making news, for falling behind and flunking out, from the U.S. to China, from the U.K. to the Philippines, from New Zealand to Canada.

Here, a hill of data suggests that boys, as a group, rank behind girls by nearly every measure of scholastic achievement. They earn lower grades overall in elementary school and high school. They trail in reading and writing, and 30 per cent of them land in the bottom quarter of standardized tests, compared with 19 per cent of girls. Boys are also more likely to be picked out for behavioural problems, more likely to repeat a grade and to drop out of school altogether.

While men and women are enrolling in university in record numbers, the proportion of women attending is significantly higher. Men make up just 40 per cent of university undergraduates, and they’re much less likely than women to graduate from the college or degree program they start.

Yet the phenomenon can be as puzzling as it is polarizing. Some see it as proof of society’s forgotten boys – that while diligent efforts went into helping girls learn, boys were disregarded, left to find their own way in a feminized education system.

“I’ve been accused of being a dinosaur and anti-feminist when I bring it up. But it’s the elephant in the room – the classroom,” said Jon Bradley, a professor of education at McGill University in Montreal, where the dropout rate is as high as 60 per cent in some urban schools. “We’ve got all the data, and still we don’t really want to admit there is a problem.”

Others, however, feel the current concerns over education statistics smack of smoke and myopia. They argue girls have always earned better grades and that it’s the marketplace that’s changed, making young men without good marks less competitive in a knowledge-based economy. They balk at the notion that boys now need special measures to get ahead.

After all, despite the giant strides women have made in higher education – outpacing men with their degrees and grade point averages – boys grow up to be men and, as The Globe documented in its series on Women in Power last week, it is still a man’s world. Men run the vast majority of countries and companies, and even when women have the same level of education, men still bring home more bacon.

“It’s hard to argue that boys are being short-changed. Even with the generation difference, it’s very doubtful that today’s girls will be ascending into positions of power and today’s boys will be in a minority in business and politics,” said Paula Bourne, head of women’s studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

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