The ‘men versus women’ debate is an old classic that still pushes buttons and sparks discussion. Power dynamics between the sexes has been a hot topic for decades, but more recently it has included a new discussion about men’s position relative to the expanding opportunities open to women (in general) since the 1950s. Specifically, there has been a documented decline in the number of men obtaining post-secondary education relative to women, which has sparked a reexamination of gender equality and the future for men and women.
On December 25, 2012, the Globe and Mail published an article by Erin Anderssen discussing the future for men and women in 2013. The author argues that the so-called decline men have experienced compared to women is actually a “release” from the constraints of gender rather than a decline into disadvantage. Citing a variety of social science researchers, Anderssen demonstrates how the decline in male employment and education outcomes is minor compared to the increasing equality that men and women experience in day-to-day work-life balance and the persistent tendency for male earners’ wages to exceed those of female earners. Anderssen calms the growing concern about the future of men and boys, particularly in the education system.
A 2010 report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario entitled “What About the Boys?” discusses the gender disparities in post-secondary enrollment and achievement. The article concludes that based on post-secondary enrollment trends in Ontario, men are at risk of falling behind women in the labour market as a result of elementary- and secondary-level schooling experiences. The root of the problem is the way in which boys are being treated in schools. However, the report echoes the Globe and Mail sentiment, acknowledging that although the relative decrease in male post-secondary education enrollment in Ontario is noticeable, there is no need to sound the alarms as of yet, because men continue to outdo women in terms of employment and income outcomes.
But let’s take a step back. Given these documented trends in education does this evidence really provide a basis for policy reaction? Is the gender “re-balance” towards women’s higher education attainment relative to men a real so-called “release” for men, or should the concerns raised by “What About the Boys?” warrant active policy engagement?
Despite the arguments indicating that boys are not a disadvantaged group, policy responses to the decline in men’s post-secondary education enrollment have cropped up. For example, The Boys’ Literacy Teacher Inquiry Project initiated by the Ontario Ministry of Education involves education programs targeting boys’ reading skills. As well, some argue that single-gender classes should be implemented in order to provide more gender-conscious classroom experiences for the boys, which according to the research would help them to succeed in post-secondary education. However, this decision is criticized for reinforcing gender stereotypes because it perpetuates the idea that there are significant differences between boys’ and girls’ abilities and behaviours.
This is a challenging debate to tackle from an objective perspective. The public discourse on gender equality covers large groups of the population that have been compared against one another for centuries. The categories of ‘men’ and ‘women’ encompass approximately 50% of the population each, which arguably is clumping together groups of people who happen to be of the same gender but are likely living very different realities. Although gender differences in education and employment outcomes are observable overall, examining these differences at a more micro level may help determine more appropriate, effective responses.
For example, Aboriginal groups still obtain much lower levels of education than the general population. Even though women have higher overall rates of post-secondary attainment, men still greatly outnumber women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects. These facts demonstrate that the debate between men and women in general may be distracting from topics that arguably warrant greater concern.
Research that examines specific factors affecting post-secondary enrollment provides more useful tools for ensuring that all individuals in Canada reach their potential and that inequalities in employment and education on the basis of gender, family background, region of residence, or ethnicity are diminished. The discussion about ALL the girls and the ALL boys may not be as productive as the discussion about smaller, more specific communities and groups of people in Canada that face many barriers to obtaining higher education and subsequent employment opportunities.
Anna Hodgins is a 2014 MPP candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a BA in Sociology with distinction from McGill University. Previously, she worked at the Calgary Homeless Foundation conducting policy research. Her interests include health and social policy.