Posted by: Gregory Linton | 09/27/2009

Causes of the Gender Gap in Higher Education

I have been examining the consequences of women vastly outnumbering men among the undergraduate population. Now, we need to consider the causes of this phenomenon. Amazingly, it has received little attention among education theorists. An exception is a 2007 book by Leonard Sax entitled Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. Sax holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology. This book follows up his earlier book Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences.

Sax’s work reminds us that the lack of men in college results from an earlier trend of boys losing interest in school and dropping out. Colleges and universities will not be able to solve this problem by themselves because as early as kindergarten boys learn that school is not meant for them. Let me summarize briefly the five factors identified by Sax. Some of these are more speculative than others, but all are worth considering and researching more thoroughly in the future.

1. K-12 education has changed in ways that are detrimental to boys. The negative attitude of boys toward school begins in kindergarten, which is now what first grade used to be. Kindergarten used to allow lots of play, exploration of nature, and use of imagination. Now it is focused heavily on reading and writing, and the brains of 5-year-old boys have not developed to the point that they can handle such linguistic work. Their brains are about two years behind the girls, and yet no one would think of expecting 3-year-old girls to learn to read and write. Boys also suffer from female teachers who do not understand the active, energetic natures of boy, and educators have also removed competition from the schools, which can motivate boys to strive to achieve.

My 5-year-old boy just started kindergarten, and since he is highly energetic we were afraid of how he would respond to it. During the second week, he decided that he was not going to school any more because it is just “sitting, sitting, sitting, reading, reading, reading.” His class has 13 boys and 4 girls, and the teacher told us this is the most difficult class she has ever had. Fortunately Benjamin has had the benefit of preschool, but many of the boys have never been in an organized educational setting, and they don’t have a clue how to sit still on a rug during story time or how to stay in line as they go down the hallway to the cafeteria.

2. Video games encourage boys to disengage from the real world. In the future I plan to examine the issue of the effect of video games on learning more fully, but at this point I sympathize with Sax’s concern. In college, we see male students spend hours a day playing video games. They deprive themselves of sleep, and they rob themselves of productive time to complete assignments that would help them learn. And the passive entertainment aspect of video games does little to develop critical thinking and writing skills, which are crucial for success in life.

3. Too many boys are prescribed stimulant medications for ADHD. Sax draws on his own expertise in evaluating children for ADHD, and he argues that teachers often recommend medication for boys because they don’t know how to deal with their natural energy. These medications sap motivation and energy from boys.

4. Endocrine disruptors in the environment such as phthalates affect males more than females. These substances cause lower testosterone levels in young men and cause other difficulties that can interfere with the motivation of male students.

5. Boys lack positive male role models. Absent or uninvolved fathers rob boys of examples that they can imitate. The lack of male teachers also deprives them of positive models.

Sax’s book is provocative, and if his theories are true, then every K-12 teacher, as well as parents, should be aware of them. Unfortunately, I have asked a number of teachers if they were familiar with Sax’s theories, and I have yet to find one who was. These trends are deeply ingrained in our society, school systems, and environment, and it does not appear that they can be changed any time soon. To his credit, Sax is doing his part by founding the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, but I am skeptical that many positive changes will occur in the future.


Sax, L. (2005). Why gender matters: What parents and teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. New York: Doubleday.

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.


  1. Males are falling behind more due to differential treatment not development or learning differences.

    1. I fear followers of the genetic models will try to build a case for genetic learning differences or body mass requiring more activity or tactile learning. Note that nice middle class Males do not have this problem. Also the view of differences in brain activity are more due to large differences in differential mental, emotional, social, physical, and educational reinforcement over time, not organic differences.
    2. I also fear the use of Male classrooms with more discipline and more time on task will only lead to more stern and even more harsh treatment and stereotyping of Males to perform more physical or menial labor to match the growing caste system being portrayed in the media against Males today.

    The nineteenth century belief Males should be strong heavily adversely affects Males from an early age onward in three large areas.
    The first area of concern: society’s belief, Males should be strong allows much aggression toward Males (differences as early as nine months) “Psychology of Sex Differences”. Here I am referring to more commanding more abrupt, harsh words, less positive eye-contact, more intimidating eye-contact, more physical treatment and more harsh physical treatment. From this aggression this creates much higher average stress that makes learning information age skills much more difficult. The lower the socioeconomic bracket the more amplified the stress and so more allowed aggression toward those Males. The increased aggression Males receive, creates four bad things for Males academically, mentally, emotionally, and socially: 1. It creates higher average layers of mental frictions (redefined from higher average stress) which inhibit thinking, learning, and motivation in mental areas. 2. These higher layers of mental frictions also create improper pace and intensity in approaching mental work (apply too much effort when approaching new material) and higher tension that hurts motivation to learn. 3. The aggression Males receive and less positive (nurturing) attention also create the higher average stress, which then creates the nervous energy or over activity. 4. This extra aggression Males receive creates the Male ego or defensive cushion that the Male develops from an early age to protect them from the aggressions they receive from society. This Male ego or defensive cushion has the negative consequences of further alienating the Male from “any” various mental, emotional, social, and academic supports they “might just” receive from society and create additional stress. 5. This extra aggression along with various lack of kind, stabilizing mental/emotional/social/verbal support causes their higher average stress to create a natural need for stress relief or much more activity. This higher average stress also creates higher muscle tension that causes a much tighter grip and pressure on the pencil or pen. This then hurts both handwriting and motivation to write. When Males hear firm or hard words from others like teachers or others their minds are thinking defense and not thinking about learning and enjoying the learning process. When boys are talked to it is often with firm short commands, not the soft, kind, ease of nurtured stability necessary for mental/emotional stability. Everyone should test this out in to see for themselves. The combination of high layers of mental frictions and defensive cushion are working to create an impediment to learning that accumulates in harm over time for men. Notice, nice middle class boys who are able to compete well have no problem with sitting at desks and writing well. This is a socially created problem, not genetics.
    In addition, the more unstable and tension filled society becomes, the more open-ended the release of stress by parents, peers, teachers, etc. upon boys of all ages is allowed and society’s gross tendency to look the other way. Now with the media stepping in to attack Males of all ages more so, this is leading to more open disrespect and more harsh treatment of Male of all ages. This could lead to some very angry Males in the future with less regard for themselves and for others. Since Females are still regarded as “to be protected” when times become more unstable or harsh, such release of aggressions due to stress is still not allowed by society thus protecting Females from the increased abuse. With this differential treatment, Females will continue to do well where Males who undergo more harsh treatment (due to any additional release of aggression) will tend to slide back farther academically and also economically. This could be responsible for boys facing more hardships growing up and suffering more so academically in recent years during more harsh times.
    The Second area of concern: In society today, men are given love, honor, respect, and support or the essentials of their self-worth only on the “condition of sufficient” achievement, money, power, status or image. Again, this is all a part of the nineteenth century belief Males should be strong. This is what makes Males so competitive. Males are continually vying or competing for the essentials of feelings of self-worth from society. They must fight through the still present, nineteenth century confrontations allowed by society upon them from an early age to achieve those benefits and feelings of self-worth. Those Males who do not achieve in school or other like areas will not only not receive sufficient love, honor, and respect from teacher, parents, and others for this lacking, they may receive more neglect and even more aggression from those persons. Again, society allows this window of aggression upon Males to make them tough.
    Males who can achieve in the classroom will do so. He will receive sufficient love, honor, respect, and support for academics and will continue to put forth more effort. When a Male Child is not showing a measure of achievement in school, he will tend to receive more neglect, abuse, and ridicule from parents and “teachers” than the Female child. This signals to the Male Child that he will not receive the essentials of self-worth in academics. He will then push himself in areas such as games, sports, and other pursuits to receive love, honor and respect (self-worth) from his peers. Over a period of years, this leaves Males far behind Females in mental, emotional, social, and academic knowledge and skills.
    Third area of concern: In addition, generally Males “are not given” – kindness, ease, gentleness, and stable – mental, emotional, social, and academic support, attention, knowledge and skills (unless by accident). Society in its ignorance from the nineteenth century belief Males should be strong considers such attention and support as coddling the Male child. Society still holds that Males should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. As a result, Males are not given the tools to develop many mental, emotional, social, and academic skills. This greatly cuts down on their motivation to develop those skills. The combined effect of society only rewarding strength and power to face aggression; neglect in many social and academic areas; not rewarding but acting with more aggression toward Males who attempt to develop mildness, kindness, goodness, and care for others are hurting many Males. Over a period of years, this is leaving many Males grossly unable to compete in the information age, which requires a slow accumulation of many complex mental, emotional, social, academic skills and talents.
    This is creating the ever growing international Male Crisis that will only get worse for Males and then get much worse for Females when Males begin to take back with interest, their power and status. I feel society will continue maintaining this mistreatment of Males until a critical point is reached.
    The truth is, little boys need just as much coddling as the girls and just as much kind, considerate mental, emotional, social, and academic support as the girls. While neglect of Male children and boys may have proved useful in the more physical nineteenth century, it is working opposite of need in the information age where it requires much more accumulated mental, emotional, social and academic skills acquired over time. In these areas, Males are being seriously shortchanged.
    It is incorrect to view the Male Crisis on role models. The lack of role models is the result of the problem, not the cause. If you had a bag full of sand with a hole in the bottom, you would “not” say there is less sand in the bag; you would say there is a hole in the bottom of the bag. Indeed, we should fix the hole in the bag by providing Males with tools to develop long-term, mental/emotional stability so they can better compete mentally and emotionally in the information age. One professional was attempting to find more role models for Male children. He boasted that a Male child’s esteem goes up when they have one positive role model. What he was unknowingly saying was that Males have such little attention that when they do receive that attention, they are very grateful. This creates the large rise in esteem. The fight for positive attention could be creating misbehavior in Male children.
    Today, many boys and men are becoming angry because they losing more than jobs and status, they are losing those things they are seeking most of all, love, honor, and respect, the essentials of self-worth. The little bites they receive in the media and workplace accumulate over time to create much anger that touches on and erodes their feelings of self-worth. As persons lose feelings of self-worth they also lose regard for the consequences of their actions. If men fall behind more collectively, they may begin to retaliate more collectively, thus ending the present shield of over-protection for women. This will mean much more abuse and crimes against women. It will do well for all parents, teachers, employers, and those in the media to be more kind to others, especially Males.
    For women, due to the nineteenth century belief women should be protected and still in effect today, this has created much overprotection for many women. When they are talked to from young age, they are given more kind, delicate, more considerate treatment. They are given much more kind, positive, upbuilding eye contact and attention. This continues from infancy right on through adulthood by family and society in general. This creates very low layers of mental frictions collectively for women. This makes thinking, learning, and motivation in mental areas much easier. Since girls are not required to be strong, this protection and continuous attention from day one also create a high speed expressway of continuous, mental, emotional, social and academic support, knowledge, and skills that accumulate in advancement in many areas over time (years). Again, listen to the difference in how little girls are talked to with more gentleness, ease, and nurtured stability, even in adulthood. These two continual supports from society over time provide nearly everything a person needs today to succeed in the information age. Since women are given through overprotection (for some, even indulgence), the benefits of love, honor, respect, and continual support, all of the benefits of self-worth from an early age without qualification (simply for being girls), they are working with much more continual support and interaction to accumulate more continual mental, emotional, social, and academic knowledge and skills that can be transformed easily into money, power, status, and image. Even after this, society’s protection, care, and continued support along with its views of beauty and charm help women in the information age.

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