Globe and Mail

Dismal reality of boys and girls

The Globe and Mail
Saturday, December 4, 1999

Almost half of Quebec's future police will be female: 40 per cent of the kids enrolled in police schools are girls. In criminology, most students are female even though their "subjects" (criminals) will be mostly male. In veterinary schools, female students are the majority, despite the fact that the work often calls for distinct muscular strength.

For quite a few years now (and this is the case across Canada), law faculties, medical schools, psychology departments and other programs leading to well-paid jobs have been admitting more women than men.

Science and engineering are among the rare departments where one can still find a majority of male students. The discrepancy has widened to the point where Quebec Education Minister François Legault recently hinted that some kind of affirmative action might be needed to get more boys into departments such as medicine and law and more girls in science.

And the Conseil supérieur de l'éducation (CSE), an advisory board for the minister, recently published a thick report that focused, for the first time in years, on boys rather than girls.

The reason why women are now a majority of university students has to do with grades. Students are enrolled according to their high-school and college grades and, on average, girls are better students -- more conscientious, more attentive in the classroom, and better at reading and writing.

This has always been the case. The gap between boys and girls is now widening because, for the first time, girls are reaping the benefits of their "natural" abilities: They are aiming at higher degrees instead of becoming stay-at-home moms.

The CSE came up with alarming statistics. In 1997-98, almost half of Quebec's male teenagers (41.3 per cent) dropped out of high school. This was the case of one girl in four (26 per cent), the main reason for their dropping out being pregnancy.

Some years ago, boys without high-school degrees could easily find decently paid work in traditionally male occupations, such as construction or factory work. But these jobs are gradually disappearing in the knowledge-based economy.

The CSE and its array of consulting psychologists and education experts were clearly at a loss about what to do. They cautiously suggested a return to segregated schools on an experimental basis, since it seems that boys and girls have different ways of learning. They lamented the lack of male role models in grade schools, where the overwhelming majority of teachers are women.

Predictably (men now being the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong on the planet), they tut-tutted the fathers for not playing a role in their sons' education. "Instead of playing football with them, why don't they supervise their schoolwork? And instead of disappearing behind newspapers, fathers should read books and make sure that their sons see them doing so," said CSE president Céline Saint-Pierre.

With this absurd remark, she was inadvertently illustrating what's wrong with a school system that many say is skewed in favour of girls.

It used to be that female teachers were tolerant of boys' restlessness. Boys will be boys, they would say. Not any more, now that boys are seen as mere products of a patriarchal culture that could and should be changed, and that female values are part of the dominant ideology. Boys' typical behaviour is often seen as a symptom of a "violent" personality, and traditionally male values -- physical courage, competitiveness, the desire to protect one's family, stoicism and emotional reserve -- are denigrated in favour of female values (compassion, verbal communication, intimacy, the display of emotions, and so on).

A troubling sign of anti-boy prejudice is the fact that prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug that "calms down" hyperactive kids and whose side effects are not fully known, have increased by 260 per cent. Predictably, these prescriptions are administered to four times as many boys as girls.

Nearly one out of two boys is dropping out of school, facing a life of unemployment, while one girl in four drops out to give birth to a baby who won't have a father. This dismal reality cannot be dismissed as just another social problem. It is a pure tragedy.

Lysiane Gagnon is a political columnist for La Presse.

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