Bad Gender Benders: Privileging Male Co-Eds & Neotribalism

When taking my sons on college tours, there is one question I don’t ask at the information sessions. Being on the consumer side in this situation, my sons have forbidden me from asking that question, which could put them on the defensive (and hurt their chances, since they do get some points from the college for going on a tour).  Here’s the question I’m forbidden from asking: What’s the ratio between men and women?  What is your gender enrollment gap?

Now, if your son or daughter is going to an Ivy League college, no worries.  They are largely 50–50 now, or close to it.  These formerly all-white, all-male colleges with Christian legacies have many anti-legacies to recover from (e.g. anti-Semitic, anti-African-American, anti-anti-affirmative action, etc.).  And if you want to apply to your mom’s Seven Sisters college, be prepared to be as disappointed as I was, if you have sons.  Only one of the sister schools — Vassar — has turned to co-education, back in the late sixties.

Bracket one more set of colleges and universities (those that specialize in arts or sciences, for instance) out of the equation, and where most of America sends its children to college is a different picture — it’s largely women.  Women account for over 60 percent of the college-attending population.  Many liberal-arts colleges that have smaller lab-based science programs are as much as 65 percent female.

Why?  No one has the definitive explanation.  And as Tamara Yakaboski observed three years ago, the “mainstream media male victimization” explanation has less than no credibility: It’s misleading and it blames the victim — those who are underrepresented in writing the rules (laws) or enforcing them (courts).

It not only obscures the problem, but, given the polarizing politics of the last three years with the GOP’s turn harder right — privileging men in a society that practicesneotribalism, repressing women and girls with overt religious strictures from the three main religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) — it is downright dangerous.  Look at what’s happening to women seeking abortion today in Texas.

The media’s male-victimization explanation deserves as much credence as the neocon anti-affirmative-action rhetoric and the GOP’s and Supreme Court majority’s anti–Voting Rights Act position.

The 60–40 ratio matters, of course, because when parents and their children are paying more than the average household income for a state college (not a liberal-arts college), it all matters.  College in the United States used to be a socio-economic leveler.  So here is our second wake-up call — since it’s not.

Higher education has been replicating income inequality, and a comprehensive study of private elite education, I suspect, would find affirmative action for enrolling boys long being practiced.

So of course, I’m happy the girls are cleaning up in K–12, and claiming all the awards. Girls play competitive sports more than ever; and girls enter math and science competitions more than ever.  And it’s not as if these girls are avoiding the creative arts to do so; they are taking away the prizes in creative arts as well.  Indeed, when one of my sons was inducted to the National Honor Society, I was proud he made it, since he was in the minority. At the same time I was proud of all the girls, who took a full two-thirds of all the seats.  It’s about time, no?

And, thankfully, now the gender and income gap question can all be narrowed to: What happens to all these women when they leave college?  What happens to all these women who would like to mix a career with a family?  Law schools and medical schools have been close to 50 percent for many years.

A family, after all, is not a female thing either, so this is where men do need to kick in more effort. Indeed, if they’re not going to college in a curiosity-based competitive economy (pure science now calls itself “curiosity-based science” since “pure” is considered too abstract and therefore too decadent to fund), then we should start adapting our college for more stay-at-home dads, not moms.  Both our sons and daughters would benefit from this kind of demographic shift.

*Tamara Yakaboski. “‘Quietly Stripping the Pastels’: The Undergraduate Gender Gap.”The Review of Higher Education 34.4 (2011): 555-580. 

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About Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see

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