Affirmative Action for Men?


I don’t know how many of our dear readers are regular consumers of the New York Times. I get the Sunday edition at home and read the website during the week. Although I don’t always agree with their editorial decisions, they do have a lot of interesting articles. Yesterday was a banner day — three interesting articles in the Style section (which is not really always about style, but anyway), on pet adoption, the return of the beard, and a trend toward gender-neutral fragrances. And on the front page was an article on the first generation of adopted Chinese girls.

But the one that really stumped me was an op-ed by an admissions officer at Kenyon College in Ohio. In it, she admits that the application pool has become so gender imbalanced that it is now easier for young men to get into college than young women. In starker terms, a young woman with the same grades and test scores as a young man is less likely to be admitted. Because, she goes on to say, once a college goes past the 60/40 women-to-men tipping point, no one wants to go there anymore.

I wrote my college thesis on affirmative action, which was a big issue in the 1990s. For various reasons, including adverse court rulings in the employment context, and the 2003 Supreme Court double header in the education context (holding that explicit numerical goals or quotas are not okay, but a qualitative process that takes race into account is), there has been much less ink spilled on it since the millenium. In high school, the idea that someone whose “objective” qualifications were less than mine could gain access to an education that I was denied incensed me. I was very naive about race back then. (And, being young, I was also very self-centered). In college, I learned enough in my first three years to realize I was wrong, but I wasn’t sure why, which is what led to my choice of senior thesis topic. The education I got about the history and present reality of race in this country was life-altering. My thoughts on affirmative action completely shifted. I knew that I had been successful because of chance, not because of any herculean efforts or work ethic of my own. So if someone else who hadn’t been as lucky in the life-chances lottery as I had been was given an opportunity, who was I to complain? Whatever the opportunity was, I had no entitlement to it. And who was to say that the measures of merit we use really measure desert to begin with? [Aside: in this interview, Lani Guinier explores this issue quite eloquently].

But despite all of this, when I read this New York Times editorial, what the admissions officer described still felt unjust to me. And I feel like I really need to think through why this context is different from race. My initial thought is that it is different primarily because boys are not disadvantaged relative to girls in society as a whole. If anything, the reverse is true. And I’ll go ahead and say it: I just don’t buy all of the crap about boys being discriminated against in schools by female teachers who penalize them academically for “acting like boys.” That sounds to me like making biological excuses for the fact that boys aren’t doing as well in school. Isn’t it just as possible that there’s a cultural reason that boys do not take school as seriously as girls do, on average?

Thinking about possible cultural explanations also called to mind an article I read yesterday about the rise of “laddie” culture and extended adolescence for men. This was fascinating because there are so many dimensions to the issue. Certainly large parts of Chaudry’s description rang true, although blaming the problem entirely on popular culture and advertising seems too simplistic. There is a definite cultural trend toward depictions of men as stupid and irresponsible. This seems to tie in, in some way, to the rising number of women who apply to and attend college relative to men. (And I should point out that the gender imbalance in these numbers reflects the fact that more women are going, not that fewer men are going. The number of men attending college has not increased, but it has not decreased either).

So, I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this issue. Why are more women than men attending college? What causes a college with more women than men to become less popular with both sexes? Why do boys do less well in school than girls? Is the cultural representation of men as irresponsible oafs driving reality, or is it the other way around? Is it unjust for bright young women to be rejected from colleges when ostensibly less-qualified young men are admitted? (And hey, in the interest of a little levity, if you’d like to comment on the return of the beard, that’s cool too).

6 Responses to “Affirmative Action for Men?”

  1. Joe Longhorn Says:

    “Is it unjust for bright young women to be rejected from colleges when ostensibly less-qualified young men are admitted?”

    Or you could phrase the question another way…

    “Is it unjust for bright young students to be rejected from colleges when ostensibly less-qualified minorities are admitted?”

    In both cases the answer is an unequivocal yes. It is unjust and unfair.

    But we started down the road to “diversity” a long time ago. Too late to turn back now.

    You said yourself that the percentage of men that go to college hasn’t changed. So I don’t think that there is some cultural under-current or backlash that keeps young men from going to college. It’s also no secret that vocational careers (mechanics, repairmen, technicians) and military careers that do not require college education are traditionally men’s domain. I’m not saying it has to be this way or should be this way. It just is.

    Let’s look at basic demographics. The U.S. population is 51% female. So the most perfectly “diversified” campus in the country would have a female majority. Now remove all of the men from the college eligible pool that go into the traditional “manly” vocations. You could remove some women from the pool as well, but if you use the military as a model, men enter these vocations at four times the rate that women do. So when you start out with the female majority and take into account the number of men that go into the vocational world compared to women that take the vocational path, it’s no surprise that college populations are skewed toward females.

    And the lad culture thing… nothing new. What about the playboy images of the 50’s and 60’s? This is just another manifestation of the same basic immaturity in men. Cars and gadgets are cool. Girls are pretty. Farts are funny. These facts hold true for probably 85% of the male population throughout their entire lives. Especially the one about farts.

  2. Sandi Says:

    But as a man who ostensibly is in the other 15%, Joe, is it okay that 85% are irresponsible? Aside from the bathroom humor aspect (which I’ve never understood, but whatever), is there a deleterious aspect to men either being this way or being portrayed this way?

    Obviously we disagree about affirmative action as a general matter — you wouldn’t be conservative unless you thought it was unjust. It just depends on what scale you view justice, an individual one or a societal one. Personally, I find the big picture more important than my individual situation. And I have been rejected because of affirmative action, so I can say that! Although on the other hand, affirmative action (for Southrons) has helped me too.

    I agree that the option of vocational careers is one thing that accounts for the gender gap at colleges. Several commentators have offered this explanation, and I think it’s definitely a major factor. In certain communities, though (i.e. the article I linked to on Tuesday about young African American men), I think it may be the case that the men who are not going to college are not passing it up in favor of vocational or military careers.

  3. Michael Lasley Says:

    Kind of expanding on what Joe said, the job options for men (the ones he mentioned) without a college degree can actually pay very well. And although these options are technically available for women, going into mechanics or construction or something isn’t as accetptable. The traditional service industry jobs that women w/o a college degree go into do not offer nearly the same type of money or benefits. Just a thought. I’m not convinced that’s the reason for the imbalance of applicants.

    I think Sandi’s idea of a relation between the article on African-American men and this trend is interesting. There was a pervasive sense of hopelessness in that article. But I haven’t thought about it enough to say anything more than I like Sandi’s idea.

    When I read things about trends with incoming college students, I also like to see the same type of information on graduation rates (since so very few people who start college actually finish). Has there been any mention of that, Sandi? Just curious

  4. Whitney Says:

    Joe’s not necessarily in the 15%. You’re giving him WAYYYY too much credit for being mature. And I know this first hand–but I love him, anyway.

    (I had to delete & repost due to an embarrassing grammatical error.)

  5. Sandi Says:

    Okay, well, I can’t speak to the love of bathroom humor or gawking at women. But Joe is married and holds a job. I was talking to my friend Melissa tonight (in response to this post) about the whole trend of young men living with their parents, including my own brother. It’s a very strange thing, and I feel like I’ve never heard of a woman doing this. Based solely on personal experience, the type of men who tend to live with their parents tend not to be the Matthew McConaughey in Failure to Launch types doing it in an opportunistic way, but rather seem to lack the social skills that allow them to function in the world. I wonder if many of them might have Asperger’s Syndrome, which as I understand it is a mild form of autism. Since autism affects boys more often than girls in large numbers, this would make sense.

  6. Michael Lasley Says:

    And about those beards…If I could grow a cool one, I’d do it. My dad has one of the best beards ever when he grows it out, but mine looks horrible with lots of patches. My favorite lines in that article were the “my beard is my security blanket” and that “masculinity” is a concept that can change quickly. Nothing productive to add, other than it was an interesting article.

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