Why Boys Are Inclined to Under-Achieve and Girls Lose Self-Esteem in Early School Years


As the new school year starts, schoolyard lamentations about boys’ academic underachievement resurface. And the worry is real: girls most definitely do better than boys at school.

But as the mother of a girl (and a women’s rights advocate), my first reaction, when fellow parents complain about their boys’ needs being ignored, is: hmmmm, sure. For those of us who, like me, are the mother of girls, the school year means we might be dealing with the sudden loss in self-esteem most girls apparently experience right about middle school, brought on by the pressure to be sweet and beautiful (or worse: sexy) rather than strong and smart.

And both with regard to boys’ academic under-achievement and with regard to girls’ self-erasure: how does that happen?

For most children in the United States, school is definitely the place where they spend the most time. What adults they see there, and how those adults behave and expect them to behave, is therefore likely to be a significant influence on their lives.  

Another big influence in entertainment media, including video games. Studies show that, on average, 8-to-18-year-olds spend more than 53 hours a week on entertainment media, and that girls and boys play video games to an almost equal extent.

From even a superficial look at each of these key influences in turn, it’s clear that something is askew. There are a distinct lack of male role models at school and a dearth of empowered female role models in video games. This bias is exacerbated for children of color: African American men are seriously underrepresented in the teaching profession, and good luck finding a strong black female character in a video game.

The question: Does any of this matter?

Teaching, in particular in lower grades, has been considered a woman’s profession for more than a century. Likewise for the notion that boys can’t sit still or that classroom learning is not designed for male style learning: while it is potentially true that some boys are less used to sitting down and concentrating on a book-ish task than some girls, the sit-down-and-learn style of schooling is nothing new.  

In other words: there is no reason that the lack of male teachers or the prevalent teaching philosophy suddenly should affect boys’ academic performance negatively.

It is also not unusual that boys and men are the main characters in whichever narrative media format kids are into at any given time. Most fairy tales and folk stories have male protagonists, or depict women as dependent on male initiative and strength. It is this bias—reflective of societally accepted gender roles–that carried over in early children’s literature and now video games. And don’t get me started on superheroes

That said (and a lot could, should, and has been said about gender bias in literature and children’s narratives) the prejudices that led to this bias have been around for a while.  

In other words: the dip in girls’ self confidence around middle school age which psychologists began to document more systematically in the late 20th century has likely existed for a long time. In fact, younger girls have not been encouraged to think of themselves as individuals or protagonists until very recently. It is therefore possible that what is new is the higher levels of self confidence and esteem in early childhood rather than the later dip.

Does this mean that biased gender representation in teaching and video games are not a problem?

I don’t think so. There is quite a lot to be said for providing a concrete example that children might project themselves onto. Filmmaker Spike Lee has repeatedly made the case that the recruitment of black male teachers in the United States might motivate more black boys to stay in school for longer.

And while male superheroes, on and off the screen, can provide a moral compass for boys, girls have preciously few models to lean on. A new documentary on the legacy of Wonder Woman shows how important, and at the same time insufficient, this one prominent female superhero has been for girls growing up during the past several decades.

Fortunately, times are changing slowly, at least for white girls. The popularity of the Hunger Games and  similar narratives shows that there is a growing appetite for female leads. But the minor furor that erupted when moviegoers realized that one of the most likable characters in that dystopic setting is black shows that there is still no real openness to narratives that represent all of us.

So the next time a parent corners me in the school yard to comment on boys lagging behind in education, I will know what to say. Let’s work together to get a better gender and race balance in our schools and on our screens. Let’s not expect all boys to be noisy and all girls to be neat. Let’s not assume that all heroes are white. It may not be directly related to exam scores, but it is pretty darn close.

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