Most of our society’s discourse on gender inequality in our society is focused on the very top: The fact that men outnumber women in elite boardrooms, law firms, and college faculty lounges. But at the middle and bottom of society, the gender inequality vectors look very different, with boys on the losing end. From the abstract of a new NBER paper:
Relative to their sisters, boys born to disadvantaged families have higher rates of disciplinary problems, lower achievement scores, and fewer high-school completions. Evidence supports that this is a causal effect of the post-natal environment; family disadvantage is unrelated to the gender gap in neonatal health. We conclude that the gender gap among black children is larger than among white children in substantial part because black children are raised in more disadvantaged families.
The authors offer two explanations for why social disadvantage seems to harm boys more than their sisters. First, it may be that “parental investments in boys versus girls differ systematically according to family disadvantage.” For example, children born into low-income families are more likely to be raised without fathers, and the absence of a male role model might be especially harmful to boys’ development.
The second explanation is that “low quality schools are particularly disadvantageous for boys.” It may be that while girls are academically independent and self-directed, boys’ well-being depends more on having strong outside support structures.
The results of the study remind us that some of our 20th century styles of thinking about gender and privilege are in need of an update. Sometimes, 20th-century thinking has gotten in the way of important initiatives that could help disadvantaged men. For example, the ACLU and other liberal advocacy groups have waged a long-running crusade against single-sex education targeted at low-income men of color, on the grounds that such programs are unfair to girls. Needless to say, that is the wrong approach. Both boys and girls have distinct institutional advantages and vulnerabilities, and it’s important that our public institutions do what they can to prevent children of either gender from being left behind.