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March 5, 2001

The new gender gap -- 'Girls Rule'

Meghan Cox Gurdon
National Post

A new report suggests boys should enter kindergarten a year later than girls to give them a greater chance of academic success. As any mother of sons will tell you, boys generally take longer than girls to develop the co-ordination needed to, for example, write legibly. So Dr. Leonard Sax, author of the report published in Psychology of Men and Masculinity, urges putting five-year-old girls in with six-year-old boys so that all kindergartners begin school with roughly the same basket of abilities.

Starting boys' education a year later seems a sensible, and sensitive, solution to an easily observed disparity. On average, small boys are less articulate, less literate, and less inclined than small girls to sit still dutifully than small girls. According to Dr. Sax, this puts them at an obvious disadvantage in a school system that emphasizes the honing of fine motor skills and rewards such feminine traits as a willingness to sit quietly and wait one's turn.

But just imagine the outcry if a similar study were to recommend that girls be held back. Feminist activists would take to the airwaves with demands for money and justice: "Instead of further entrenching male dominance, we should devote more resources to helping girls catch up!" The notion that we should accept little girls are naturally handicapped in comparison to their more verbal, literate, and nimble-fingered brothers would be regarded as an outrageous piece of sexism. Girls can do anything boys can do, our daughters are repeatedly told, and mustn't believe anyone who says they can't.

Ah, but can boys do anything girls can do? No, they cannot, and no one exhorts them to think they can, either. The assumption still is that girls must somehow be pumped full of self-esteem -- "Girls Rule!" read umpteen gaudy T-shirts and pencil boxes -- but that boys need taking down a peg. Promoting a masculine sense of superiority is the last thing most parents and educators would dream of doing, which is why it'll be a cold August in Riyadh before someone prints up "Boys Rule" T-shirts. After all, boys rule already, don't they?

Actually, no, they don't. In the past few years the increasing pace of research into this widespread assumption has raised ominous questions about who is actually suffering from a "gender gap." It turns out that far from being the oppressed little Ophelias of feminist mythology, girls routinely outperform boys on standardized tests, stay in school longer and are kept back a grade less frequently. In childhood, they are dramatically less likely to be drugged (with Ritalin, to increase calm and concentration); in adolescence, they're much less likely to commit suicide. In Ontario, as reported in this newspaper last week, girls even outshine boys in the putatively male preserve of mathematics.

Freedom and opportunity are positively heaped on girls. Rare is the parent who would forbid a daughter to play an unladylike game such as soccer or basketball. Even the Toronto public parks system is slanted toward females: Girls and women's groups receive automatic priority in reserving playing fields, for example, over teams involving boys or men. In the United States, civil rights legislation requiring "gender equity" in the apportionment of higher-education athletic programs has meant the cancellation of such male pursuits as wrestling. If young women don't turn out in equal numbers for competitive sports -- which they don't -- campus administrators must, by law, cut the number of male athletes. Girls don't win from this, but boys lose.

And woe betide the boy who dares to pursue "unmanly" activities. At my daughter's school, one young boy bravely joined an after-school jazz dance class and, as the only male, was pityingly regarded as a bit of a curiosity. Another boy I know begged his dismayed parents for years to let him take ballet lessons. They resisted. "I didn't want a situation where there would be 24 girls in pink tutus -- and him," his mother says. "We spent years trying to force him to do 'boy' things. It was misery." Finally, this fall, hearing about an all-male ballet class, his parents yielded, uneasily. They agreed to keep the lessons a secret. "I'd be crucified at school if anyone found out," the child admitted.

In this case, the still-secret lessons have had joyous private reverberations. "He took one step into that class," his mother says, "and he looked so happy, like someone who'd come in from the cold. I remember coming home and saying to my husband, 'He just lit up.' And he's been sort of lit up ever since." But she dreads her son's inevitable confrontation with prejudice.

The odds used to be stacked against girls. Now in study after study, and anecdote after anecdote, it's become clear it's boys who face discrimination, whose choices are stunted. By all means, let's have boys start kindergarten a year later. They have many years of brutal competition ahead in a world where, increasingly, girls rule.

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