McGowan: A Gender Imbalance on Campus

January 12, 2022

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

President Daniels:

I hope the school year began well and stays that way.

My friend, a proud Boilermaker, shares your missives with me, including your recent “Open Letter to the People of Purdue,” in which you lament the imbalance of men and women on campus.

I taught for over 40 years in higher education. My last stop, of 24 years, was Butler University, where I was an instructor (I dropped out of my career to raise our children). Prior to Butler, I was an associate professor, chair of the philosophy/religion department, and director of the school-wide required ethics course at St. Joseph’s College. In 1991, I originated the Men’s Studies area for the Popular Culture/ American Culture Association. I have been aware of, experienced, and researched imbalances between men and women for over 50 years.

The language I used in the 1970s provoked people to call me “an idiot leftist.” These days, I use the same language but am called “an idiot right-winger.” Thinking of equality as a principle has not changed for me or anyone enamored of Betty Friedan’s ideas and suggestions. However, the principle of equality found in her book “The Feminine Mystique,” has changed over the years from individual equality to group equality. The change means that individuals in some groups will be excluded from enjoying society’s opportunities and benefits.

For 40 years, the group identified as “men” or “male,” has been denigrated. The abundance of our society’s negative comments and attitudes toward men and boys has taught boys that they are the wrong sex. Why aspire to college? The trend in enrollment shifted back in the 1980s. Further, policy decisions are guided by the idea that one sex should be favored over the other. Affirmative action and Title IX have not been applied as principled legislation.

Higher education demonstrates as much when campuses have women’s studies majors but no men’s studies major, or women’s centers but no men’s centers — this despite the fact that men commit suicide four times as much as women and that men are two and one-half times more like to suffer a death of despair. That sort of data suggests a need for men’s studies and men’s centers on campus.

Please note that Purdue, which is an excellent school and one whose leadership — yours — I admire, is not alone. When I was at Butler, enrollment there was well over 60 percent female.

In order to regain equality, either by group numbers or on the basis of individual opportunity, research and policy must proceed beyond ideological cant. Here is research from a 2018 paper I wrote:

“That girls and women are not as involved in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may suggest bias against females. However, recent research based on data from almost a half million teens from 67 countries, suggests otherwise. A study published in Pyschological Science in February “showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science . . . and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled.” In short, women have the talent to enter STEM occupations. However, the study found that ‘paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality.’ The researchers, Gijsbert Stoet and David Geary, concluded that ‘life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement in STEM subjects.'”

Girls were as successful as boys in STEM subjects, but girls were considerably more skilled than boys in the cognitive area of reading. If young people are encouraged to choose careers and study by their strengths, boys would head toward STEM classes but girls could head in more directions. The irony is that the countries with the greatest gender equality, for example, Norway and Finland, had the least female STEM graduates. The research is relatively new so it must be understood with some caution, but the research surely calls into question a societal bias against females in STEM domains.

If women are more broadly competent, they are more likely to meet admission requirements in more diverse fields. One consequence is a higher female enrollment.

The problems associated with imbalances between the sexes, wherever they appear, cannot be fixed soon. Minimally, the “fix” must come at the high school level. More attention must be given to boys and young men so they see and can realize the possibility of non-traditional roles. Our society encouraged women to become doctors and it now has a nursing shortage. High schools encourage women to pursue STEM courses. Do high schools encourage men to pursue “caring” careers?

Unless and until society includes all groups, we will continue to have the imbalances that you lament. And as your open letter to the Purdue community attests, you and I prefer inclusion to exclusion, equality to inequality.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.


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