'Failing boys' 1990s conversation continues into the 21st century

Monday, November 1, 2010

Kathy Sanford, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

As I read the recent Globe and Mail series of articles, I am amazed that we are still circling around the same discussions, discussions that serve to continue the moral panic about how the boys are not doing well, how education is not paying attention to boys’ needs and concerns, and how boys are falling behind the girls.  These very same headlines appeared in the 1990s newspapers, but continue to surface. On one hand, it is gratifying to see the ongoing concerns with gender issues in our society, and a desire to address these concerns. On the other hand, it is disheartening to see that we seem to have no more informed understandings of these very complex gender issues than we did in the 1990s, or the 1980s.

We don’t seem to have any more informed or sophisticated language through which to address gender issues in more nuanced and specific ways. The current concern addressed by the Globe and Mail series of articles seems to have been initiated by the perceived lack of males continuing on to postsecondary education, and doing less well in relation to females.  These concerns are informed by measurements generating ‘data’ that is, on its own, superficial and simplistic. Rather than relaying percentages of women and men who are attending, completing, succeeding, or failing, I believe that we need to look beneath the surface of these numerical accounts, and ask more holistic and challenging questions of our society and ways that gender plays out for women and girls as well as for men and boys. Why do we not, for example, consider which boys are not continuing, and in which areas they are not continuing?  Why do we not examine which professional fields women are entering, and which fields men continue to dominate?

Why do we not celebrate the successes of women, rather than wringing our hands about the overabundance of women succeeding at postsecondary institutions?  Why do we not worry about the ongoing disparity of wages between women and men – even at postsecondary institutions?

I would like to raise several points that deserve further discussion, research, and attention that I believe a newspaper like the Globe and Mail, or any other media source, is responsible to explore in depth:

1)    Why do women still find professions such as computer science, engineering, and physics such difficult spaces to enter and be accepted?
2)    Why do men not choose to enter the fields of nursing, social work, education, child and youth care?
3)    How do issues of salary and benefits affect choices made by men and women? How do issues of prestige affect choices made by men and women? What do university degrees offer by way of living conditions, job satisfaction, and salary?
4)    Why does formal education not attract those who have engaged in self-directed learning, social networking, digital media?  What are young men doing, if they are not going to university? Are they failing at their careers in the same way that they are being reported failing at school?
5)    How is ‘success’ being measured? What is meant by ‘failure’? Are boys themselves seeing themselves as failures? What do large-scale, standardized tests ‘measure’ and what do they not provide information about?
6)    Don’t girls deserve the same concern as boys in relation to job success and satisfaction?
7)    We are very concerned with ensuring that we have males as role models in schools – what determines role model characteristics?  Are all males (i.e., football players, politicians) good models because they have particularly prestigious professions? What other types of modeling should we be concerning ourselves with?
8)    Why do we not consider the ways that roles for men and women are shifting? How do we enable men to take up nurturing roles in the family and society, as women are taking up careers?  How do we help boys/men shift their perspectives about being successful men, and enable them to develop and maintain healthy and happy relationships in the workplace and at home?
9)    What current research sheds light onto the myths that continue to circulate in popular media and informal conversations about gender, in particular about what boys need and want?  We see what we are looking for – how can we be helped to look with different eyes at perennial problems that don’t seem to be being addressed in ways that are helpful to males or females?
10)    Why would men choose poor-paying professions/jobs (i.e., teaching, nursing) that have high levels of commitment and stress, when they can be better rewarded (financially and prestige-wise)? Which boys/men are attracted to these professions, and how can they be supported to continue and to contribute to the broader community?

There is considerable research in the array of areas related to gender, and I think it is time that we find ways to offer informed discussions about these with a broad array of populations. Perhaps we should consider new ways to translate our ‘academic’ knowledge so that our work reaches people who want and need to be more fully informed, including media researchers and writers.

Kathy Sanford is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria. She is the Past President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE).


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