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Education: the end of the alpha-male?

"I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca. But will it work out now between men and women?

'To call woman the weaker sex is a libel' – Mahatma Gandhi

What is the most striking transformation that has taken place in European education in the last half century? The information and communications revolution and the changes brought to teaching and learning methods are strong contenders, while internationalisation and student mobility in education have also expanded education's horizons. Yet there is another dramatic evolution that we sometimes take for granted: the female dominance in terms of educational success! Why does this not make more headlines, especially since the trend of women outperforming men has been strengthening at all educational levels year after year? Is it because we have not let go of the idea that women are the under-represented gender? While women remain disadvantaged in some aspects of societal reality, especially in the labour market when looking at managerial positions or comparing salary scales, this is not true anymore in education. With the exception of one or two subject areas, women are the educational high achievers and at the forefront. So where does that leave men?

The short and brutal truth is that more men are being left behind. Eurydice's recent report on Tackling Early School Leaving, for example, shows that boys are now twice as likely as girls to leave school with low or no qualifications. In tertiary education, participation rates of women exceed those of men in almost all European countries to an extent that could not have been imagined only 50 years ago. As the Key Data on Education in Europe report shows, already in 2009, around 20 % of 18 year old women were taking part in tertiary education programmes as opposed to 13 % of men. What's more, female student graduation rates in most European countries have been increasing annually at a rate close to 10 % since the year 2000. Although there are still significant gender differences when it comes to particular subject areas – mathematics and engineering, for example, remain male strongholds – this clearly shows that the societal transformation has been tremendously rapid.

While it is vital to investigate how and why this reversal of educational fortunes has happened, perhaps the more pressing issue is what its possible consequences are and what, if anything, could or should be done about it? Needless to say, the potential implications are enormous. Assuming that the barriers that held women back in education are also broken down in other facets of society, it is very likely that the global knowledge economy will become a place where women overall will be more successful than men. One inevitable consequence of this scenario is the decline in the share of educated men in highly skilled workplaces, bringing about a wave of changes to traditional employment roles.

Pursuing this idea further, the reversal of the gender gap in education may also transform family structures – with the woman, and no longer the man, more often becoming the chief family breadwinner. While such a shift may occur without major strife, other scenarios are possible. Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, predicted as early as 2000 in her book The war against boys, that the fact that "women are significantly more literate, significantly more educated than their male counterparts" is likely to create a "lot of social problems: the lack of well-educated men does not bode well for anyone". After all, according to the matching hypothesis theory in social psychology, partners are more likely to be attracted to one another, and more likely to succeed in a committed relationship, when they are equally socially desirable. Women becoming more successful than men would definitely disturb that equilibrium.

On the other hand, recent research by Christine Schwartz from the University of Wisconsin-Madison points to another picture. While Schwartz confirms that the gender gap in education may have far-reaching consequences on domestic relationships, and that partnerships between educational equals are generally more stable, the negative effects of women having the upper hand are becoming less pronounced. In fact, she notes that "marriages in which wives have the educational advantage were once more likely to dissolve, but this association has disappeared in more recent marriage cohorts". In other words, men seem to be accepting the likelihood of ending up with a better educated counterpart, while women accept that they may have to put up with a less educated male.

But can our education systems do more to support male under-achievers? Eurydice's 2010 study on Gender Differences in Educational Outcomes points out that differences in educational achievement appear very early, and are most significant with regard to the acquisition and development of specific skills, notably reading skills. In other words, boys tend to lose interest in developing basic skills such as reading far earlier than girls, and this has a knock-on effect in many later learning activities.

Perhaps the problem is therefore not as complex as it seems. Maybe it would suffice for countries to devise educational policies that target the early onset of gender differences in areas such as reading literacy where it really counts. However, when looking back at history, government policy was never the sole instigator for change in gender roles. The gains for women came about rather through bottom-up action in conjunction with government support, over time leading to a major cultural transformation. Seen in this light, and considering the new place of women in the world of education, perhaps now would be a good time for men to start thinking about their future societal role. But maybe that is not even necessary. After all, a UK newspaper article recently announced on this topic: "good news, ladies: men prefer smarter women"! Only time will tell.


Authors:  David Crosier and Andrea Puhl

Last update: 27/02/2015  Print | Top of page