Shortchanging Girls

March 14, 1992

"Schools Shortchange Girls," according to a report by the American Association of University Women. That sounds right -- we all know discrimination and cultural conditioning persist in the lives of girls. Yet the report is a disappointing case study in politicized science. Knowing what it wanted to prove, the AAUW rounded up some facts and stuffed them into a predetermined conclusion.

What facts? Well, according to the AAUW, girls and boys start school roughly equal in skills and confidence, but girls trail by the end of high school.

But do they? It depends on what you measure. Girls get better grades than boys, the study admits. More girls go on to college. More boys are suspended or disciplined or assigned to special education classes. That all sounds like raw material for a study documenting gender bias against boys.

Specific indicators of "shortchanging" girls are ambiguous. Teachers (who by the way are disproportionately women) call on boys more and encourage them in the classroom, the AAUW reports. But any good teacher knows that you try to draw out the reticent child, and sometimes that means ignoring the raised hand of the honor student.

The AAUW complains that more boys than girls pursue careers in math and science, and reflexively blames classroom gender bias. But feminists no longer argue (if they ever did) that men and women are indistinguishable, so that a perfect world must have equal numbers of male and female physicists and engineers. The report fails to consider whether emotional and psychological differences between the sexes might account for the disparity. Nor does it address peer pressure and other social and cultural factors that can hardly be transformed by more sensitive classroom teaching.

The report's handling of statistics borders on distortion. The AAUW faults SAT tests that score boys higher than girls on math aptitude. But significantly more girls than boys take the test, which means that the boys and girls taking the test are not socio-economically equal. According to the College Board, a higher percentage of girls entering college grew up in poor families in which they are the first generation to receive higher education. This is a measure of women's progress, not of discrimination against them. (It also raises the question of what happens to the young men from these families, and why they don't enter college in comparable numbers to their sisters.)

The AAUW is right to insist that girls be encouraged to pursue technical and scientific careers. It is right to demand textbooks that do not stereotype girls. But when it festoons these messages with careless research and tendentious cant, the AAUW itself "shortchanges girls."

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