Saturday, November 19, 2005
Boys and Girls
The lengthy comments following the post on the “masculine space” of The Valve posed many questions about gender preferences and the tone of Valve threads. We should add to those speculations some of the empirical data on gender difference and literary/academic performance.
1. Ever since the advent of a broad reading public in America, more women have read literature than men have. For long time, literature was considered “feminine reading,” and nonfiction prose “masculine reading.” Traces of that distinction linger today, and women do, still, read literature much more than men. About 50 percent of young women read at least one work of literature in a year’s time, while barely one-third of young men do.
But in the traditionally masculine areas, women are starting to beat men as well. In the National Endowment for the Arts survey Reading at Risk (2002), 59 percent of 18-24-year-old read at least one book of any kind in the preceding year, while only 43 percent of men the same age did so. Much of that was literature, yes, but ten years earlier, the gender gap was only 8 points, not 16 points (63 percent to 55 percent). Certainly, literature alone doesn’t account for that doubling of the gender gap.
2. In terms of reading scores, we have a similar widening of the gender gap as boys and girls age. In the 2004 NAEP Trends report by US Dept of Ed, the gap in scores for 9-year-olds was 5 points. For 13-year-olds it was 10 points, and for 17-year-olds it jumps to 14 points. What happens to boys and girls when they hit middle school that aggravates the differences? The middle school reading list? Video games? Peer pressure?
3. The reading gap extends also to study time. A report commissioned by the Association of American Publishers found that female college students study much more than male students. Fifty percent of women study every day, while only 33 percent of men study every day.
4. The study gap extends well beyond literature classes, including math and science as well. Here, too, the traditional superiority of boys to girls is diminishing. The 2003 PISA test in math and science found that while 15-year-old boys did show higher scores on “mathematical literacy” than 15-year-old girls, there were “no measurable differences in problem-solving scores by sex.”
5. This is nothing that any admissions counselor at a college won’t echo. One of the issues facing college admissions is that schools are having a harder time keeping their entering class under 60 percent female. The only way for them to achieve gender balance is by practicing affirmative action for boys, which many of them do.
That women match men in nonliterary subjects suggets that the critical, analytical nature of Valve discussion isn’t gender-biased. So, perhaps, there is, indeed, a question of mores.
"Affirmative action for boys”: I had heard of that, but I think I blanked it out.
I don’t think anyone was arguing that women can’t or don’t do high theory (or if they did, maybe I was blanking that out as well). What you say about mores (tone, style?) seems exactly right. It’s a conundrum, for as some commenters have pointed out, many of our posters and commenters enjoy that particular style of intellectual exchange. I think, as Matt wrote and others have implied, that those of us who prefer other sorts of discussions need to start them ourselves, and nurture them when someone else starts them.
It’s not just blogging-- it’s book-reviewing too: (more) men are (more) often socially encouraged to make and defend snap judgments early in life, in conversation and other informal exchange, so more men go into a subfield of literary activity which requires them to make and defend snap judgments in print.
Well hell I’m a writing woman, and interested in literary discussions, though I’m not college educated and get lost in the kind of discourse I see here, but am interested.
My work has made the rounds, and was taught at 2 universities, back in the 80s when “transgressive” narrative non-fiction was new. I read the reviews and didn’t understand what the critics were talking about for the most part, terms like “intertextual analysis” and words like that leave me with no reference point, but the flavor has been laudatory and that’s good. I’m here lurking for now, to try to get a handle on how academics process and talk about writing, but just wanted to jump in with regard to the gender thing. I have no problems with what I’ve seen here so far, but I have been branded a male identified misogynist in some circles myself, but shall remain a woman til the day I die.
I wonder about the parameters of the male-focused affirmative action described above. Does this enrollment scheme apply to universities with large international student populations? I was pondering this idea because it seems that the statistics listed above solely refer to the American educational system. Do boys in China or France detest literature just as much as American boys supposedly do? I feel that the typical U.S. English class is detrimental to both boys and girls due to its blurred “survey” framework. It just so happens that, on average, American girls fare better in reading literature. However, I know many girls who dislike reading literature just as much as their male counterparts. Focus should be placed on the improvement in quality of the English class, not on debating which gender is best acclimated to the current standards of literary education.
As boys and girls reach middle school, they no longer have required reading lists as they did in elementary school. Also, they are more worried about being “cool” and doing activities with their friends. It is no longer “cool” to read books. This is worse with guys because it translates into sports and video games. Both of these activities are way more time consuming than shopping and makeup, a past time that becomes popular with girls in middle school.
As a freshman in college, I, too, have noticed a descrepency in study time between the genders. While it seems to me that both sexes turn in work at equal rates, my experience has been that girls tend to attend classes on a more regular basis, and are more likely to be found studying for both exams and classes in general.
@Corey: I don’t know about middle schools where you are, but in the middle school I teach at we still have required reading lists.