Deborah Merrill-Sands

(WOMENSENEWS)–As parents this week finish buying backpacks and notebooks for their children returning to school, they may also pause to worry if the heralded new gender gap in education–that girls’ advances come at the expense of boys’–should add to their load of concerns.

And no wonder. This is how the data about girls’ and boys’ relative successes have been played by the dominant media.

For example, BusinessWeek’s May 26 cover story heralded a new “gender gap,” arguing that girls have achieved performance gains in the classroom at the expenses of boys. Girls’ new achievement, it concluded, is causing boys to move inexorably toward the status of the “second sex.” BusinessWeek lamented, “It seems as if girls have built a kind of scholastic Roman Empire alongside boys’ languishing Greece.”

But the conclusion that there is a gender-based “zero sum game,” or that boys necessarily lose when girls gain, is both inaccurate and disturbing. Through a selective use of U.S. Department of Education statistics, the BusinessWeek article noted a “stunning gender reversal in education,” and argued that boys’ performance has declined while girls’ has improved.

A more balanced look at these data, however, actually shows improved, not diminished, performance for boys over the past three decades. Scores in reading, math and science have increased for all groups of elementary and high school boys tested, except for 17-year-olds in science.

Moreover, while girls’ performance has improved, boys continue to outperform girls in six out of nine indicators based on age and subject matter. The claim of a “widening gulf” between boys and girls in educational performance is unfounded.

It is also dangerous. It casts girls erroneously as the newly anointed beneficiaries of privilege, crowned at the expense of boys.

Even more unsettling are the implications for business spun from this perceived “slide of boys.” These seem almost plausible because they reflect subtle but deeply held gender norms about the world of work. The article forecasts, for example, a future shortage of skilled workers because women now earn 60 percent of college degrees.

But aren’t college-educated women a viable pool of “skilled workers?” Is the growing number of women who are primary earners in their families a social pathology that will erode the American family, the productivity of our economy and the vitality of our civic life? Or is it, instead, a sign of social progress?

Zero-Sum Analysis Comes Up Short

A zero-sum analysis that pits boys against girls and men against women doesn’t help create equity in the classroom, the workplace, or the boardroom. Moreover, it distracts us from the real challenges facing business and its future work force.

Business does indeed face a potential future shortage of skilled workers–but it’s not because boys allegedly are falling behind in the classroom. Rather, business is simply not attracting many of today’s talented teens. A recent national study by Simmons College School of Management in Boston and The Committee of 200, a professional association of preeminent business women and entrepreneurs, showed that only 9 percent of teen girls and 15 percent of teen boys foresee pursuing careers in business.

The majority of girls, and a number of boys, aspire to “make a difference in the world” and “help others,” and they say they don’t see business doing that. Our real and very serious concern should be that young people–our future work force–don’t understand that well-run businesses can and do make a positive difference in the world.

We have our work cut out for us.

First, we need to continue to challenge specious arguments that suggest girls have “made it” at the expense of boys–a stance that isn’t true and doesn’t help either sex. Second, we need to be vigilant in recognizing and challenging often subtle beliefs that perpetuate gender stereotypes that undermine women’s opportunities in the workplace and their rise to leadership. And third, we need to create new pathways to capture girls’ imagination to help them see how their aspirations to help others can be realized in business and support them as they hone the skills they need to succeed and take up leadership roles.

When we do that, everyone wins.

Deborah Merrill-Sands is associate dean of the Simmons College School of Management in Boston, the only business school in the world designed specifically for women.

For more information:

Simmons College School of Management and C200 Partnership
“Teen Girls on Business: Are They Being Empowered?”:

BusinessWeek–May 26, 2003
Cover Image: The New Gender Gap