Girls Rule

By Margaret Wente, Saturday, May 31, 2003
Toronto Globe and Mail

If you want to feel confident about Canada's future, meet five remarkable kids -- Adrienne Li, Maike Milkereit, Diana Sharpe, Elisabeth Tremblay, and Rebecca Zener. They're the top graduates this year at the elite Toronto French School, and they are the crème de la crème de la crème of their generation. They are accomplished, idealistic, funny, modest, well-rounded, socially aware, and ferociously bright.

And all of them are girls.

It's not that the school doesn't have its share of high-achieving boys. It does. But at TFS, girls dominate academics out of all proportion to their numbers. Nine of this year's top 10 graduates are girls. Eight of the nine students in the Scholars' Guild (which is made up of the top students from last year) are girls. The girls have also grabbed the lion's share of the external awards, including one of the University of Toronto's much-coveted National Scholarships (Ms. Sharpe won, but hasn't decided if she'll go there because she has competing offers.) The student council president is male -- this year.

Everyone knows that girls are doing well in school these days. What's stunning is how well. The girls have moved so far ahead, the boys can barely see their dust. This is something new in history -- an entire generation of alpha females, many of whom are destined to outearn the men as well as outperform them.

"Income is closely associated with educational status," says Paul Cappon, director-general of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada. "We've known about this tendency for a long time, but it's much more dramatic now."

It's not just on the soft side that the girls excel. Ms. Li, 18, is one of the school's top three students in math. (The other two are boys.) "I hate to say I'm a math nerd, but I am," she says with a laugh. Ms. Milkereit, 18, wants to specialize in biological and life sciences. (She also speaks French, German, and Spanish.) Ms. Tremblay, 17, is also interested in science. Ms. Zener, 17, plans to do a five-year combined course in biomedical science and business administration. "I've always wanted to be a doctor and an astronaut," she says.

Speaking of doctors, women are now dominant in medical school. Only five years ago, they made up 49 per cent of first-year students. Today they make up 59 per cent. At Hamilton's McMaster University, 69 per cent are women, and women make up more than two-thirds of incoming students in Quebec.

Heather Munroe-Blum, the principal of McGill University in Montreal, recalls that as recently as 20 years ago, women were being discouraged from going to professional schools because they might take places away from men. "But women have strong aptitudes in these areas, surprise, surprise! If you look just at academic performance, girls excel -- especially in medicine and law," she says.

At McGill's medical school, men still outnumber women slightly. But women dominate in law school (by 3 to 2) and even management. In the sciences, it's also 3 to 2 in favour of the women. "It has literally been a complete reversal in 25 years," says Ms. Munroe-Blum.

These stunning numbers simply reflect McGill's demographics. Like campuses across the country, it's a dating paradise for boys. McGill has three female undergraduates for every two males, and it is typical.

These trends hold true throughout North America, in every ethnic and income group. In the United States, many Ivy League and other elite schools have abandoned gender-blindness in admissions so that they can keep their ratios close to 50-50. The only remaining bastions of male supremacy are engineering, and the hardest of the hard sciences, such as physics. In Canada, if you want to find a majority of men you'll have to go to Waterloo, where computers and engineering rule.

Which raises the unsettling question: Where did all the boys go?

Nobody knows.

"I'd like to tell you that men make it up by being in community college," says Dr. Cappon. "But they don't."

Some people argue that all the effort devoted to fixing the gender gap that used to exist for girls has come at the expense of boys. The school culture has become so feminized, they say, that boys are set up for failure.

It's hard to say whether the boys are actually doing worse, or whether the girls are simply doing so much better. What's clear is that from the earliest age, the boys are lagging, and the longer they're in school the worse it gets.

This week, Dr. Cappon's group released the latest results of its authoritative national writing test for 13- and 16-year-olds. To pass, a student had to attain a level of writing where "errors do not interfere with communication." Among 16-year-olds, 69 per cent of the girls made the grade, but only 53 per cent of the boys. Yet three-quarters of the students who wrote the test said they wanted to go to college or university.

"Boys are not going to get into university, or complete postsecondary education, with that level of writing ability," says Dr. Cappon. The facts bear him out. Boys are 30 per cent more likely to drop out of high school.

No wonder the hottest topic in education is how to help the boys. The remedies suggested range from more boy-friendly books (Surprise! Boys are interested in cowboys and cars) to more recess (Surprise! Boys have a hard time sitting still) and more male role models (Guess what! Boys admire hockey stars).

To the average parent, this may seem like a stunning statement of the obvious. But in education, it's an earthquake. An entire generation of educational theory has been rooted in the notion that boys and girls are the same, and that gender is socially constructed. Worse, social critics such as Christine Hoff Summers (The War Against Boys) have argued persuasively that schools tend to pathologize normal boy behaviour -- in other words, to treat boys as defective girls.

Today, it's nature, not nurture, that rules the education conferences. The hottest experts are showing up with brain scans to prove their point that gender makes a difference after all. The keynote speaker at a conference of independent schools in Toronto this summer is Dr. Leonard Sax, an outspoken crusader for single-sex education. He believes the best way to help the boys will also help the girls: Segregate them and tailor their education to their very different brains. "These differences are real," he argues. "They are grounded in biology."

Maybe the boys will catch up. Meantime, on our doorstep is a social revolution. The graduating girls of '03 are confident, goal-oriented and self-sufficient. They're used to paying their own way, and don't expect to depend on men for much of anything. Who will they marry? How will they bring up their kids?

"What does it mean when women are the main breadwinners and the main nurturers?" wonders Dr. Cappon. "We've never had a situation like this before."

Back at TFS, the girls don't look too worried. Their summer is chock-full of plans for language courses, volunteer work at the hospital for disabled kids, an Internet project for War Child Canada, and learning more about research into Alzheimer's. Ms. Sharpe wants to polish her American Sign Language, which she picked up a couple of years ago for fun.

Personally, I'm not too worried either. The girls will work it out.




designed by