Separate might be better than equal when it comes to gender

Posted: Mar 10, 2004 12:00 AM
When it comes to race, separate is inherently unequal. Gender is different.

The Bush administration acknowledged as much in proposing to give public school districts new freedom to create single-sex schools or classes. In doing so, President Bush opened up new opportunities for both boys and girls. Women senators from Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, to Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., supported the move.

The old guard reacted like, well, reactionaries. Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, called the proposed regulations a "very serious attack on the most fundamental principles underlying protections against sex discrimination under Title IX and under our Constitution" that could "set back progress that women and girls have made for over 30 years."

"We are not advocating single-sex schools," a Bush education official told The New York Times. "We understand that co-ed remains the norm." "More options" is the Bush mantra on education.

Meanwhile, isn't it strange to see the same people who advocate separate sports teams for girls recoiling at the idea of a single-sex school? The reason we have separate sports teams is that gender, unlike race, is a biological reality. If we want girls to have equal athletic opportunities, we sometimes have to give them separate teams. We might wish to one day achieve a society that is race-blind, but a society that is gender-blind would be just plain blind.

Separate is always unequal when it comes to race because, for the most part, blacks and whites live in different families. It is quite plausible for one race (in our case, whites) to segregate itself in order to hog all opportunities for its own clan. By contrast, every family contains men and women, some combination of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters.

In this day and age, we can count on mothers and fathers to advocate as zealously for good education for their daughters as for their sons.

Moreover, it is boys who are seriously disadvantaged when it comes to education. According to a 2003 Business Week cover story, the statistics are shocking: Girls outstrip boys in reading scores and have pulled nearly even in math. Boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be in special ed programs, four times as likely as girls to be put on Ritalin. Girls dominate every extracurricular activity except sports (63 percent of boys are on athletic teams compared to 49 percent of girls). Boys are 30 percent more likely to drop out of high school than girls. Girls are substantially more likely to graduate from college than boys. In 2000, 133 women received a bachelor's degree for every 100 men. By 2010, the education department predicts the gap will grow to 142 women college graduates for every 100 men? man.

Why the gap? One likely reason is that boys and girls are affected differently by growing up in a fatherless home. The negative effects of fatherlessness on boys' education achievement can be seen in the relative gender gap in college degrees in different ethnic groups. The gender gap in education tracks perfectly ethnic variations in rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing. In every racial and ethnic group, girls are more likely to graduate from college than boys. But boys are more nearly equal in Asian families (which have the lowest rates of fatherlessness), followed by whites, Hispanics and African-Americans (who have the highest rates).

These problems are exacerbated by schools that do not take seriously the needs of boys in our fatherless neighborhoods. In a fatherless world, the danger is that good citizenship, leadership and academic success are stereotyped as girl stuff, and boys are left to find masculine role models on MTV and "Grand Theft Auto."

I don't have all the answers. I know that finding them depends on treating the reality of gender seriously. Both our boys and our girls deserve what they need to flourish.