Sunday, January 3, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Diversity

Late last semester, a display on gender balance in universities went up on the diversity-education board in the residence hall where I work. The board is the responsibility of a student who gets room, board, and a cash stipend for updating it once a month, plus organizing two educational programs each month, supervised by graduate students. All too typically for such material, it had some problems. Let's have a look.
THEN: In 1960, women received only 35 percent of bachelor's degrees. By 1980, the recipients were equally matched by sex.

NOW: For every 100 American women enrolled in college, there are only 77 men. For every 100 women who graduate with a bachelor's degree, only 73 men accomplish the same feat.
Notice that the meaning of the numbers changed between THEN and NOW, from percentage of degrees received to the proportions of men to women enrolled and graduating; that's a no-no. An incautious reader might take the latter figures to mean that women get 77 or 73 percent of bachelor's degrees nowadays. After puzzling over the numbers awhile, I did some searching and found that in 2004, women received 58 percent of the bachelor's degrees granted in the US. That's still quite an imbalance, but it doesn't sound as alarming as 73 percent. I suppose the student diversity educator looked online for the numbers and picked the first results he found; possibly he didn't notice that they weren't comparable. (Those who worry about gender balance will be relieved to hear that the god-given ratios largely persist in science and engineering.)

Also, "Over the past decade, women with a bachelor’s degree or higher jumped nearly 7 percentage points, from 19 percent to 26 percent. During the same time, men had a 4-percentage-point increase going from 25 percent to 29 percent." Men are not, in other words, being shut out of higher education; they were already overrepresented, so it's not surprising if their numbers aren't increasing as fast as women's. I hope that the next bulletin board won't be on racial divides in education, since 50% of Asian-Americans have bachelor's degrees, compared to 30 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Whites are already getting restive about Asians' academic "overachievement."
The College Board described the reasons for these numbers:
Traditional schools aren't tuned in to the hands-on learning styles of boys
The media portrayal of smart young men generally is of socially awkward boys who don't get dates to the prom
Young male students, particularly at-risk youth, lack positive male models in and out of the classroom
This is a mess. First, these "reasons" don't come from the College Board. They come from a New York Times blog post listed as a resource on the bulletin board, which also turns out to be the source for the "77 out of 100" figures. (There are three links to "Resources" on the bulletin board; I'll come to the other two presently.) Admittedly, it's not clear where the blogger got these "reasons," but it sounds like they might come from Melissa Kleiner, an assistant principal from Pittsburgh who led a College Board program on the "gender gap."
Ms. Kleiner set up a program for boys in her middle school, using frequent group sessions and field trips to examine what leadership is, and how the students can assume leadership roles ... [including] a ropes course in the Pennsylvania woods (during class time, to which other teachers might object) or watching a montage of clips from movies like “Gladiator” or “Saving Private Ryan.” But the film clips, in their own way, show men leading other men, which, Ms. Kleiner hopes will motivate her students to find leadership and success in their own lives.
No mention in the article about the effectiveness of this program, which appears to have been inspired by the 1990s' mythopoetic men's movement. That movement and its media stars, especially people like Robert Bly and Michael Gurian, spread the alarmist myths about boys and school that this Times blog post now retails. But those myths are bogus, because schools have never been "boy friendly," and most boys have always been hostile to academic achievement, often picking on the "grinds" who studied hard. If men used to get most bachelor's degrees, it was because they didn't have to "compete" with women for them. (Incidentally, there's no reason why competition should come into it, but that is how the situation is commonly viewed.) Women were blocked from access to higher education until well into the twentieth century, and as soon as the barriers were lowered, they surged in to take advantage of opportunities that, comparatively speaking, most men had never been very interested in.

Concern about boys' achievement appears to be a worldwide phenomenon, and not just in English-speaking countries. It's also quite old. (I don't have any links for this; those who want to know more might look at Failing Boys: Issues in Gender and Achievement, ed. Debbie Epstein et al. [Open University, 1998]; Masculinity Goes to School, Rob Gilbert and Pam Gilbert [Routledge, 1998]; and the writings of R. W. Connell and Michael Kimmel. Though these books, except for Kimmel's, focus on England and Australia, they address American controversies too.)

Back to the bulletin board:
The federal gender-equity law known as Title IX prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating against applicants based on gender.
Just a nitpick here: Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex, not gender. True, "gender" has replaced "sex" in diversity-speak, probably because "sex" might be taken to refer to copulation. But "sex" is the word used in the law, and the board had already referred to the proportion of degrees being "matched by sex" in 1980.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has begun examining whether selective colleges are discriminating against women in undergraduate admissions, as the rapidly growing proportion of female applicants threatens gender balance on those campuses.
Whoa! If you weren't paying attention, you might easily miss the fact that discrimination against women is the worry here, since it's women who "threaten" gender balance. It's at this point that the other Resources might be useful, but they are both to articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education that are available online only to subscribers. Happily, though, the rest of us can read a newer article from the Chronicle that gives an update. One commenter to this article remarks, "It's awesome how affirmative action never applies to men." Actually, it does -- I've seen numerous arguments over the past decade that affirmative action should be applied to males in school. Which brings me to the bulletin board's pop quiz:
QUESTIONS: Are selective coeducational institutions, both private and public, giving undue preference to male applicants to avoid becoming "too female"?
This first question can't really be answered on the basis of the information on the bulletin board; it's what the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights is just now beginning to investigate, though the Chronicle article I linked above mentions "reports in the news media several years ago that [the University of Richmond] was intentionally admitting a disproportionately high number of male applicants" -- but even those reports don't seem to be substantiated. I've often noticed, in contexts like this, that people are asked about matters of fact as though they were matters of opinion.
Should universities be allowed to consider gender and accept higher proportions of men to balance the scales?
Well, universities use a number of criteria in admissions; representation is always consciously designed and constructed. If it can be shown that the value of a 50/50 gender balance in the student body outweighs the desirability of achievement and ability, then it might be acceptable to increase the number of males on campus. But it has not been shown. Arguments for doing so include the promotion of heterosexual dating and marriage on campus, which never seemed to concern the opponents of coeducation in the past. It's not clear that college students necessarily should be getting married before they graduate -- what's the rush? Aside from this, the arguments seem to rely on an assumption that male students aren't doing as well as female students because of anti-male discrimination, which hasn't been proven either. What "scales" are to be "balanced" here?
Should colleges simply ignore this trend because of past wrongdoings with regards to gender?
Now we come to the anti-affirmative action propaganda. We haven't been given any reason to believe that women are getting more bachelor's degrees than men nowadays because of unfair advantages given to women to redress "past wrongdoings with regards to gender". That's what this question assumes, though. What appears to be happening is that women's academic achievement and success outstrips that of men, when barriers are removed. (It's revealing that there are references in some of the discussion to "overachieving" girls and women, which appear to be based on nothing but their rising academic success.)
What issues of diversity arise when we do not balance this statistic? What issues might occur if we do correct the issue?
I'd like to know how the student who prepared this bulletin board would answer these questions. Any appeal for affirmative action for men in this situation is illegitimate, though, because affirmative action is appropriate only when there is sustained systematic discrimination against a group, that persists after legal barriers have been removed. There never have been legal or systemic barriers against men in academia (aside from racial and other barriers that affected women along with men), and I see no sign of them now, so there doesn't appear to be any reason to give preference to males in university admissions -- aside from good old-fashioned sexism. What issues of diversity arise, I wonder, from a bulletin board like this, which misleads the viewer and insults both the female and the male students who live in the dormitory it is supposed to serve?