Are we raising our boys to be underachieving men?

The social and economic consequences of letting boys fall behind

The trick to having a baby girl, according to researchers in the Netherlands, is a calcium- and magnesium-rich diet, full of hard cheese, rhubarb, spinach, canned salmon and tofu. It’s also important, claim the authors of the study, for women to steer clear of salty foods, potatoes and bananas. Though the study was based on a small sample, it wouldn’t be a shock if the results prompted prospective parents to stock their fridges accordingly.

As Robert Bly and others prophesied in the 1990s, when they retreated to the woods to beat drums and exhort men to embrace their inner caveman, the modern male is in danger of losing his way. The process apparently begins early. On average, boys earn lower marks, study less, and are more likely to repeat a grade than girls. Young men are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate university than young women. And while they still dominate in engineering and computer science, men are outnumbered in most professional programs, including law and medicine.

Today, the average Canadian university campus is 58 per cent female. In fact, at some schools, men only make up about 30 to 35 per cent of the students. “Any country allowing 60/40 female-male college graduation rates is not putting its ‘best team’ forward,” argues Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail. “Men need a degree just to get to the starting line.

College has become the new high school; that degree is what employers look for as a guarantee of basic social and communication skills.”

Nobody worth listening to is calling for society to turn back the clock on the advances made by women in the last 40 years. Writing in the Observer last year, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the London-based Higher Education Policy Institute, warned against simply ignoring the gap.

“It matters in the same way that 30 years ago it mattered that fewer girls went to university than boys,” he wrote. “Graduates, after all, tend to form the elites of society and, as women have come to dominate in higher education, we should expect these elites to change gender over time, too. That itself is no bad thing. What is intolerable is that significant numbers of young (and not so young) people are excluding themselves—or perhaps being excluded because of aspects of our school system—from joining these elites.”

Indira Samarasekera, the president of the University of Alberta, was more direct when she described the gender gap at post-secondary schools to the Edmonton Journal as a “demographic bomb.” She went on to say that programs to encourage female CEOs should take a backseat to a much bigger concern: “that we’ll wake up in 20 years and we will not have the benefit of enough male talent at the heads of companies and elsewhere.”

This is not to say that women run the world—yet. There’s no denying that a wage gap—and a glass ceiling—persists in the workplace. In Canada, even a young woman with a university degree earns about 90 cents to every dollar earned by a man with a similar level of education.

But women now experience lower unemployment rates than men, and one large-scale American study showed the start of the kind of change it has taken generations to accomplish. It found that childless urban women under the age of 30 earn, on average, eight per cent more than their male peers. The gap is even wider in places like New York City (17 per cent) and Los Angeles (12 per cent). Whether these same young women continue to lead the next decade will depend largely on how many of them decide to stay home full-time to raise children, or even just get off the fast track by moving to part-time. Still, a lot more young women than men have been able to take advantage of the higher earnings that come with higher levels of education.

As the number of stay-at-home dads has tripled in the last three decades, women are more and more the family’s primary breadwinners, a trend sped up by the recession, which struck male-dominated industries, including manufacturing and construction, the hardest. Men accounted for an estimated 71 per cent of the 400,000 jobs lost in Canada during the downturn. Thanks to a commitment to education, young women seem better positioned for the knowledge- and service-based economy of the future. The majority of the job sectors expected to grow the most in North America during the next decade are ones traditionally filled by women, such as nursing.

And as boomers retire in the coming years, causing the labour pool to shrink, the demand for highly educated workers is only going to increase. University graduation rates among women in Canada are 18 percentage points higher than men (43 per cent versus 25 per cent). So there will be a lot of women there to answer the call. And men, who have not earned nearly as many undergrad and professional degrees in recent years, will have to play catch-up. Experts say the average guy is going to have to adapt. And perhaps learn a lesson or two from the women’s movement. “Men are going to get the signal that women got 20 years ago, that if you get the education in the field that’s in demand, the money will come,” says Beata Caranci, TD Bank’s associate vice-president and deputy chief economist. “Education and building as much experience as you can are lessons that men need to take away.” All of which, experts say, is leading to something of a new world order. And it’s left some wondering if we’re raising a generation of underachieving men.

Maclean’s asked a small group of Canadian educators (from elementary school teachers to university professors), “Who are the more driven and ambitious students in your class, boys or girls?” All but one answered girls. Experts say that girls mature physically and emotionally faster than boys and are better able to focus on assigned tasks. A recent large-scale study of brain development, conducted by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., shows very dramatically that the brain of a five-year-old boy is roughly equivalent to that of a 3½-year-old girl. In other words, the brains of a male kindergartner and a female kindergartner differ from each other much more than the brains of adult men and women. This means most girls start school with a very significant academic advantage: they can sit still longer and self-regulate better and earlier.

Consequently, they are more likely to be praised by teachers, explains Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift, while boys are more likely to be corrected and scolded. “The boys develop a notion, which they would not have developed in a kindergarten 30 years ago”—when there was less emphasis on academic skills and pencil and paper work—“that doing what the teacher wants and being good is unmasculine. That’s their first impression of school. And research shows that these attitudes, that kids form very early, are very stable: once a boy decides that school is stupid and the teacher hates him and trying to please the teacher is something girls do, four years later he still has the same beliefs. They’re set, like concrete.” It makes sense, then, that boys who turn off school at an early age don’t see much point in going to university.

One of the problems for boys, say Sax and others, is that the public education system has put an increasingly greater emphasis on reading comprehension and verbal skills in an effort to engage girls. Whereas 30 years ago, the average preschooler would have been dancing, fingerpainting, singing and horsing around on the playground, today, the Baby Einstein ethic has entered the classroom, and there’s considerably more didactic instruction of the sort that used to start in Grades 1 and 2. In part, this is because many parents demand it, and it’s also just another one of those cyclical corrections in education: a return to the three Rs after a decade of extended emphasis on building self-esteem. The results, however, have been anything but positive for boys, according to some experts.

While the numbers have been decreasing, more Canadian boys (10.3 per cent) drop out of high school than girls (6.6 per cent). Three decades ago, says Sax, women were much more likely to leave school, often to get married and start a family. Today, men quit high school at higher rates. “And it’s not because they’re staying home to raise a baby,” says Sax. “It’s often because they’re going to their parents’ home to play video games in the basement.” He says a key to getting boys on track is to create an “alternative culture in which it’s cool to be smart.”

One solution, which Sax advocates, is single-sex schools. Supporters say dividing the genders provides environments that are more conducive for each to flourish. Leslie Anne Dexter, vice-president, academics, at the Sterling Hall School, an all-boys’ elementary school in Toronto, points out that at her school boys are allowed to stand in the classroom, because they can’t sit very long. In contrast, says Dexter, at an all-girls’ school students would likely be sitting quietly. And the academic program at Sterling, she adds, is based on the understanding that boys’ brains are compartmentalized, and therefore the curriculum breaks subjects down into discrete steps. Girls’ brains, in contrast, are less rigid. “It’s two completely different types of curriculum,” she says.

The same-sex model also takes away some of the pressures that occur when you get boys and girls together. “The boys can feel proud of their poetry, they can act and sing, they can join cooking clubs,” says Ian Robinson, the principal at Sterling. “In a co-ed situation that tends to be more challenging for boys, particularly when you get to the ages of 12, 13 and 14. When you put likes with likes—boys with boys, or girls with girls—the temptations and confusions that might occur in the co-ed class just don’t exist.”

Not everyone’s sold. Charles Ungerleider, a sociology of education professor at the University of British Columbia, argues that there’s no concrete proof that single-sex schooling is an equalizer. He also says that the gender gap, especially when it comes to reading, is being addressed in public schools, and cites several examples of efforts aimed at engaging boys with regard to literacy, an often-cited divide between the genders. Teachers are offering more options in class, he says, so not everybody is required to read “the same basal reader” but can choose from books about superheroes and sports, as well as comic books and gaming magazines. He also says teachers are intervening “earlier and often” when signs of trouble arise. A couple of decades ago, he adds, teachers would have waited for failure before stepping in. He also says teachers are increasingly being taught to pay close attention to how they treat boys and girls differently in the classroom—everything from how questions are asked to dealing with behavioural problems.

Ask twentysomething women—the real experts on young men—to compare their level of drive with that of guys their age, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find very many who say men have more. Aside from her Bay Street contemporaries, “Lisa” (who agreed to speak to Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity) sees little that resembles ambition among her male friends, most of whom have no idea what they want to do with their lives. “I have a lot to accomplish before I’m 30 and the whole family stuff comes into play,” says the 22-year-old. “A lot of guys don’t feel like there’s a rush.”

Of course, boys and girls have had quite different gender role models. The mothers of young women encountered discrimination and obstacles in the working world, and had to push that much harder to get ahead; many raised their daughters to capitalize on opportunities, and consciously instilled in them a notion that they could do and be anything they wanted.

Meanwhile, men have increasingly felt under siege at work and at home, where they’re expected to invest more effort in fathering and domestic responsibilities. Boys have grown up with the idea that men must share power and opportunities; girls have grown up with the idea that they have a duty to “go for it.” These animating generational principles have positioned girls to cope better than boys when the economy craters.

This may be why young women like Lisa say laziness is another key factor in men’s failure to launch. Young guys she knows are spending upwards of seven years to complete four-year degrees. And they don’t exactly pick up the pace after graduation. A couple of her male friends who studied theatre in the hope of becoming actors still haven’t hired agents, despite graduating two years ago. “They keep saying, ‘I’ll do it later, I’ll do it later,’ ” says Lisa. “Of the girls I know in the same program, every one of them has an agent.” Then there’s the high school student she knows who is in line for a sports scholarship to an Ivy League school but doesn’t seem willing to work hard enough to pull his marks up sufficiently to earn it. “Any girl I know with that opportunity would be there in a heartbeat,” she says. “It’s shocking.”

“Alysse,” a 23-year-old political science grad at UBC, has seen similar trends. While many of her male friends are smart enough, she says most would opt for a menial job over grad school.

“They never challenge where they are, even if it’s a place they don’t want to be,” says Alysse, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. While her female friends are constantly looking to improve, her male friends are more concerned with the here and now. “They just say, ‘I get paid enough and that’s all I’m concerned with.’ ”

While many in this cohort fit the stereotype of the slacker who would prefer to spend his days and nights playing Halo, there are indicators that the societal shift has prompted some positive changes. For many men, having a wife who earns more money allows them to play bigger parts in their kids’ lives. Between 1976 and 2009, the number of stay-at-home dads in Canada jumped from 20,000, or one per cent of all stay-at-home parents, to nearly 60,000, or 12 per cent. Caranci, at TD, says if families make the decision about who should stay home based on which parent is the bigger earner, the economy will be better off.

The key, of course, is for men not to let ego get in the way. For some, that’s easier said than done. Many young men say they’d like their wife to earn more than they do, but Gary Direnfeld, a Dundas, Ont.-based social worker and expert on family matters, observes that it can be a source of tension. “For many, it’s perceived as a power imbalance,” says Direnfeld, the host of Newlywed, Nearly Dead? on Slice, “and their perceived inadequacy.” Furthermore, he says, the guy’s family might ask, “ ‘Why aren’t you keeping up?’, fuelling the flames of his inadequacy, when there’s nothing inadequate.”

In many ways, just as gender roles are changing, so is the definition of masculinity. “There is confusion,” says Peter Cornish, director of the University Counselling Centre at Memorial University in St. John’s. “Men aren’t certain now how to be men.” Cornish thinks young men are especially ready to tap into the emotional intelligence required of them. “When I started at Memorial in 1994, most of the men I saw came in when they were having an academic crisis, or had broken some rule and were in trouble,” he says. “I’ve done a therapy group for the last 12 years or so that’s focused on relationships. It used to be all women. This year, the majority are men. There’s less fear that it’s unmanly.”

Still, many women can’t be bothered waiting for guys to figure themselves out. Marriage is already on the decline in Canada, and there is no indication that’s heading in the other direction any time soon. Though not apologizing for it, Alysse wonders if by putting their careers first, women are actually part of the reason men are holding off “buckling down until later in life.” Whatever the case, finding a “marriageable mate,” says Whitmire, of Why Boys Fail fame, is the biggest implication of this shift. “There just aren’t enough to go around,” he says. “Will [women] marry ‘beneath’ them, not marry and not have children, or not marry and have children via sperm banks?”

Lisa, for one, doesn’t expect young men her age to be husband-worthy until they’re about 30 and done with their “lazy” phase. “Some of them may get out of it by the time they’re 25,” she says. “Fingers crossed. Because if not, it’s slim pickings.”