'Female Advantage' at College: Just Another Fake Gender Crisis

The New York Times ought to be ashamed. A series of articles about the supposed "boy crisis" and "women leaving men in the dust" in college is the latest gender pseudo phenomenon generated to raise fear and profits. Anything about male-female competition upsets a lot of people. It sells books, newspapers, tends to generate a lot of angst-filled e-mailing and often gets me into a lot of trouble too -- especially with people who don't really read what I've written. Anyway, consider this.

Tamar Lewin, author of "At College Women Are Leaving Men in the Dust," describes enrollment numbers that "tilt toward women," which has some selective private colleges giving men a boost. Notice the words "tilt" and "some" and "selective private colleges." Female authors are being added to reading lists, she tells us. This long overdue condition certainly has people shaking. At Harvard, 55% of women graduated with honors this spring and they just admitted 52% women to their freshman class. That 5% honors difference and 2% extra women difference is supposedly part of what the New York Times refers to as "the new gender divide." Give me a break!

If you read past the title of this article and those of the NYT series, you'll find such observations as: "Over all, the differences between blacks and whites, rich and poor, dwarf the differences between men and women within any particular group," says Jacqueline King, a researcher for the American Council on Education's Center for Policy Analysis and the author of the forthcoming report."

And the line we're supposed to skim in Lewin's earlier article "Boys are No Match for Girls in Completing High School" reads that the supposed new gender gap "is far more pronounced among minorities" thus skewing the results.

As if making much ado (a series) about very little (especially about the kids to whom the conclusions actually pertain) weren't enough for the once-called "newspaper of record," New York Times op-ed writer John Tierny followed in his editorial "Let the Guys Win One" with the excessive generalization that (1) men are now an "underachieving minority on campuses," and the bogus conclusion that (2) therefore Title IX protections of women's sports ought to bite the dust so boys can at least succeed in that domain.

I had to reread that piece a few times looking for the "Ha ha, just kidding," but it wasn't there. Based on a bogus title about findings generalized to the wrong population, we now have an attack on women's sports. As if we see a lot of media coverage of those.

All of this nonsense pales by comparison to what is actually going on in our world. But, for the sake of balance on an issue given too much attention, let me just say what I've observed in my years of teaching college. College is where the playing field is largely leveled. Success is more predictable than it is in most aspects of life. If you study you can get reasonably good grades. Rarely, if ever, do college professors think to themselves, "This student is a woman, I'll grade her lower than her exam results."

But, on the other side of graduation there is the political landscape of work. It swallows naïve men and women, but women face an especially long, hard road if they think that the kind of work that got them college grades is going to be enough to get them ahead on the job. Once young women pass through the "cute-and-little phase" of their lives when they threaten no one to the levels where they do, success is a matter not only of competence but of politics as well. If a female advantage does exist right now at the college entry level because they put in the hours of study, it usually disappears at this later level in those fields where women do not predominate.

So many women who've been through the confusion of sorting out the political landscape of their jobs without the mentoring often more readily available to men, are telling their daughters to accrue as much of an advantage at every stage as humanly possible. The word on the street for some time has been that women must be twice as good at what they do to be hired and promoted in jobs where men dominate. Sour grapes? Some think so. And it isn't always true. But it is often enough.

I was fortunate to have a father who was ahead of his time. He saw education, especially for girls, as "one of the things they can't take away from you." He even believed that women must be financially secure, especially given the increasing divorce rates. He may not have foreseen the politics of work obstacle, but he knew that doing well at college gives girls a much-needed nudge at the starting gate and a few years into their careers as well -- even if they are paid less. But then you need to open your eyes, see and believe that gender differences exist, some good some not so good, and do what it takes to offset the disadvantageous ones.

Many women aren't terribly proficient at looking and sounding like stereotypical leaders, for example. They use disclaimers such as "I hope this isn't too abrasive" or "This may not be a good idea" far more than men. When they take on stereotypical leader characteristics, they often have the Hillary problem of appearing too distant, calculating and cold -- a kind of no-win situation unless you're good at managing perceptions. Women are interrupted more often and many find ideas they propose at meetings are rejected until a man repeats them.

And this, I might add, is not usually the man's fault. Why? Often women don't present their ideas with the conviction needed to own them and to offenses such as idea stealing many women do not have adequate comebacks. All this costs them as it does those men who are similarly disadvantaged. And when it comes to learning politics at work, women take far too long to realize how far behind they are. Men in my sessions are rarely resistant. They know it matters.

A lot of young and even older women decide to keep a low profile at work in order to avoid being labeled "troublemakers" or "loose cannons." By acting this way they actually earn the reputation of having poor leadership potential. This doesn't help the stereotypical perceptions surrounding them. A highly successful female executive at IBM told me after complaining about a young woman who wouldn't make herself visible to people higher up -- one coasting on her competence, "You can't wait for someone to notice you, worry that you're bothering the boss with your accomplishments, or neglect to let someone know that you really want to work with him." Another from Bank of America advised, "Women need to stop worrying about being labeled as too feminine or too unfeminine, and get on with getting noticed and appreciated."

Women like these are the mothers of today's college students and they're telling their daughters to go for the gold ring because nobody is going to give it to you. They're advising them to get into the fray and get noticed, to excel as soon and as often as possible.

Yet some people prefer to see this succeed-early approach as a crisis for boys instead of a healthy move for girls and maybe one that will light a fire under more boys. As the mother of two sons, I wouldn't mind. And because most of us won't read far enough in the NYT articles to learn that the real problem is economic disparity, as higher socio-economic status boys and girls are both doing fine, this silliness about a "boy crisis" is twisting people into knots and causing some to call for diminished opportunities for girls. The real crisis is leaving so many promising youngsters "in the dust" because they aren't sufficiently wealthy. If the New York Times wants to do some good and do it well, why don't they focus on that problem?

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