An Open Letter to Margaret Wente (please stop perpetuating gender stereotypes)

23 Nov

Margaret Wente wants me to know that I don’t care about my son.

Well, not my son, specifically; she thinks that I don’t care about any boys. Or, at least, any “real boys”, whatever that might mean.

See, Ms. Wente recently wrote this lovely and super-balanced article for the Globe and Mail about the gender gap in education. For this piece, she interviewed the principal of Upper Canada College (one of our country’s most prestigious boys’s schools), two of his colleagues, and the executive director of the International Boys’ School Coalition (a not-for-profit coalition of schools that promote the “education and development of boys world-wide”) – so, all people who have a vested, financial interest in promoting the idea that boys need to be educated separately or differently from girls. She did not interview anyone who does not make money from boys-only education. See what I mean? Balanced.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that, percentage-wise, less boys are entering university than girls, and that more boys are dropping out of high school. Margaret Wente, and others like her, argue that this is because Canadian education today favours the learning styles of girls over that of boys. However, I find it interesting to note that the percentage of males obtaining a university degree has, in fact, increased by 5% since 1991 (though admittedly the percentage of females has increased by twice that amount), and the high school drop out rate for both males and females has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. Also interesting to note is that the gender gap is much smaller for those enrolled in college – there is only a 2% difference between the number of male and female college students. So what, exactly, am I trying to prove with all these numbers? That things maybe aren’t so dire as Margaret Wente makes them out to be, because according to her the situation is pretty dire. See, Margaret Wente thinks that we’ve reached some kind of boy-ocalypse that will certainly end with the extinction of males in academia.

Ms. Wente wants us to believe that women have “stormed the gates of medicine and law” (which may or may not be true – it’s hard to say, because she provides absolutely no sources for any of her claims), but interestingly she neglects to mention that a heavy and persistent bias against women in science still exists, or that most law firms are little more than old boys’ clubs. Ms. Wente wants us to know that,”In the most prestigious programs at some of our leading universities, the gender ratio has reached 70:30″, although she totally neglects to tell us what those prestigious programs are, and which leading universities offer them. It’s kind of hard to argue with someone who provides you with no reference for her “facts”, but I will say that my department at university (Classics) was overwhelmingly male. It’s possible that my program just wasn’t prestigious enough, or that Ms. Wente doesn’t consider Dalhousie to be a “leading” university. Who can say? I mean, other than Ms. Wente, that is.

Anyway, after a whole bunch of hyperbole, Margaret Wente finally gets down to brass tacks and explains what, exactly, she’s trying to get at: she feels that our school are not addressing boys’ needs in the classroom. Fair enough! So, what, according to Ms. Wente, are those needs?

Let’s take look, shall we?

“Boys’ existential issues are different from girls’. For a boy, the two most important life questions are: Will I find work that’s significant? And will I be worthy of my parents?”

Huh. That’s funny, because those things are both really important to me, too! Ms. Wente neglects to mention what the two most important “life questions” are for girls, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she believes they have something to do with marriage and babies.

“When boys themselves are asked what they need, they say: I need purpose. I need to make a difference. I need to know I measure up. I need challenge. Above all, I need a meaningful vocation.”

Well, that makes sense, because those are all things that are definitely not very important to girls. I mean, except for the fact that I would say that most of these are the driving forces in my life.

‘Boys also need to imagine themselves in heroic situations. When girls are asked about Vimy Ridge, they say, “Whew, it must have been horrific.” When boys are asked, they imagine what they would have done if they’d been there. “Our most powerful assembly is on Remembrance Day,” says Mr. Power. “Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?”’

Well, I’m sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a culture that glorifies violence and war, right? Also, and this might just be my vagina talking, I tend to think that “horrific” is a pretty accurate description of Vimy Ridge.

Boys love rituals, trophies and tradition. Those also make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

None of those are things that girls like. Ever. Girls hate working to achieve something, and if they do somehow manage to stumble upon an achievement, they definitely don’t want a trophy for it.

So far, I’m kind of having a hard time seeing what Ms. Wente is getting at, but then she decides to really lay it out for us. The problem with boys and education is that we’re not allowing them to be manly enough.

Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.

This argument might make some sense – if you’re someone who believes that masculinity is nothing but a social construct. But people who care about real boys know that’s not true.

See? I told you that Margaret Wente doesn’t think that I care about real boys!

Time to get real, you guys. I’ve been pretty flippant up until now, but I have to tell you, it makes me pretty fucking angry that Margaret Wente likens understanding and acknowledging your feelings to behaving like a girl. First of all, I don’t think that there is any way to behave “like a girl”. Second of all, I think being “in touch” with your emotions is an excellent idea for anybody, regardless of their gender. Third of all, I am so fucking sick of people equating breaking down gender barriers with making boys “behave more like girls”. How about we just stop insisting that people fit into narrowly-defined gender roles?

The funny thing is, it’s those gender roles that are responsible for so many of the issues that Margaret Wente is complaining about.

Here are some examples:

The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening.”

But why doesn’t she question the fact that we live in a culture that puts value in boys behaving in a threatening way? Why doesn’t she wonder how, in our fucked-up view of masculinity, we equate violence with power?

[Women have] all but taken over pharmacy and veterinary work.

Gee, do you think that’s maybe because those career paths have come to be seen as more typically feminine? Do you think that there’s a chance that less boys are entering those fields because they’re afraid of compromising the masculinity that Ms. Wente praises so much?

Before the Industrial Revolution, boys spent their time with fathers and uncles, often engaged in strenuous physical activity. Now they spend their time in the world of women, sitting behind desks. If schools threw out the desks, they’d probably be a lot happier.

It’s interesting to note here that Ms. Wente fails to mention that before the Industrial Revolution it was only boys who permitted to attend school. And guess what? Schools back then included desks as well. In fact, I would argue that, in the past, formal education involved far more sitting at a desk than it does today. And you know what? If we’ve come to equate the idea of school as being part of “the world of women”, then that gender stereotype is likely one of the reasons boys aren’t thrilled with being in school.

Look, I’m not here to argue with the idea that boys are lagging behind in our educational system. I’m not here to say that things don’t need to be changed, or that I don’t believe that boys develop differently from girls; having watched my son and his peers I know that, for example, girls tend to have an easier time with language, whereas boys excel at spatial awareness. I’m not even against the idea of educating boys and girls separately (although I would be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns about the equality of the education they would receive). What I am saying is that I don’t think that re-inforcing gender stereotypes is what is going to fix this. In fact, I think that those gender stereotype are what got us into this mess.

What if, instead of having this be a battle of boys vs. girls, we use this as an opportunity to find a way to meet each student where they are. Can’t we engage our students as individuals, rather than saying that the whole curriculum has to be rejiggered to benefit one or the other? Is there any way to find a curriculum that will be the perfect middle ground? Or will we constantly be going back and forth between uh oh now the girls are doing better, no wait now it’s the boys, no wait the girls without ever finding a balanced way to address the subject?

I hope that when Theo starts school, his strengths and weaknesses aren’t treated as being boys’ strengths or boys’ weaknesses; I hope that they are treated as his own individual issues, his own successes and failures, and that his teachers are able to see past his gender and appreciate him for himself.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

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10 Responses to “An Open Letter to Margaret Wente (please stop perpetuating gender stereotypes)”

  1. empressnasigoreng November 23, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    I have studied this area a bit and the conclusion seemed to be that the achievement gap between boys and girls was much more pronounced in lower socio economic status groups. Indigenous boys in Australia do particularly badly and have a much higher rate of suspension, dropping out of school etc than any other group. In contrast, wealthy middle class boys do just as well if not better than girls. They also get paid more on average even if they do achieve lower marks at school and university.
    My kids both go to co-educational schools and it does annoy me that the high school only ever seems to set novels with male protagonists as English texts. Apparently boys won’t read ‘girls books’ but is okay to make girls read things they are not interested in. Anyway, I could go on all day so I had better stop here …

    • ann at thevelvetaubergine November 24, 2012 at 2:17 am #

      I was about to post something very similar. Schools continue to fail low-income and minority youth — particularly young men. Who are also incarcerated at a much higher rate than the affluent white men. Affluent white men are, of course, still doing just fine. UCC, of course, caters to just such boys.

      • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:36 am #

        Well, exactly. It’s no wonder that the UCC boys are doing well, because they come from some of the wealthiest families in the city! I don’t really believe that it has anything to do with the fact that they’re being educated separately or differently from girls.

    • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:39 am #

      Good points!

      And looking back, the vast, vast majority of the books we read in high school had male protagonists. I can think of one book (A Cue For Treason) that had a strong female character in it, but she still wasn’t the protagonist. Ugh.

  2. eden November 24, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    I love this post! Kids and gender, man. It gets harder and harder all the time.

  3. wandergirl November 26, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    Yes! I had a discussion about this with a friend who promoted Margaret Wente’s article on Facebook. This is the perfect response!

    • bellejarblog November 27, 2012 at 2:36 am #

      Ugh, Margaret Wente is the worst. A few days ago she was complaining about how we shouldn’t be fighting for equal representation of women in academia. Uuuggghhhhh.

  4. Jessie November 27, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    I love love love this post. And your whole blog, which I now follow. Gender stereotypes have always bothered me a LOT, but now that I am a mother (one girl, two boys), I am so much more aware of how relentlessly and constantly they are communicated to kids, albeit by folks who don’t even necessarily know they’re doing it.

    • bellejarblog December 2, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

      Thanks! And yeah, it’s crazy how relentless the gender stereotyping is, and also how unconscious it seems to be. I probably inform a lot of my son’s choices without even realizing that I’m doing so. Man! Gender!

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