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Thursday May 28, 2020
Posted: Jul 07, 2015

The gender imbalance in education raises important questions

College Connection

As an educator and a father of two school aged boys, I am particularly interested in reports of academic success of students in local schools.

Every year around graduation time the Kennebec Journal posts top 10 graduating student lists for local high schools; I review these with great interest. I am interested in students’ college and career plans. Their plans are inspiring; it demonstrates the essential role that education plays in the success of the next generation.

Their choice of school is also of interest to me, as a representative of the University of Maine at Augusta.

One curiosity of these lists is the apparent gender imbalance in most schools’ top 10 graduating seniors. Girls predominate in these lists. Occasionally, there is a top 10 list with gender equality. But for the past three years, I have not seen a school where boys were in the majority.

Graduates listen to the concert band playing the National Anthem at the start of the Monmouth Academy graduation on June 7 in the Stuart L. Foster Memorial Gymnasium at the school. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan)
Graduates listen to the concert band playing the National Anthem at the start of the Monmouth Academy graduation on June 7 in the Stuart L. Foster Memorial Gymnasium at the school. (Staff photo by Joe Phelan)

This disparity might be due to a number of different factors. I’d like to suggest a few and also propose that it would be of interest to educators at all local educational institutions to sort out just what is going on.

Obviously, my observations may simply be the result of coincidence. In order to determine this, we would have to look at a wider sample of schools from around the state and nation. If not attributable to coincidence, it may be the case that boys are simply making a rational economic determination that formal education is less important to their success, however defined.

Maine is a long way from the days when a basic high school diploma could be a ticket to success in a mill or other career. Nevertheless, there is also a gender imbalance in certain professions, including builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians. There may be a legitimate assumption on the part of many young men that formal education is optional for success in their chosen field.

There are other possibilities that are less benign. It may be the case that there is gender bias, either explicit or implicit, in educational settings that discourages boys from pursuing formal education. Male peers may look down upon others who try too hard in school. Boys may be encouraged to focus on athletics at the expense of academics.

There are clearly fewer male teachers than female teachers in elementary schools. At an early stage, girls may see role models in education, while boys may not. In addition, there may be teaching methods that have more success with one gender more than another. There may be bias in the curriculum itself. Although with the standardization of our K-12 curriculum, this seems unlikely.

It is important to sort out just what is going on because it would be unfortunate to disadvantage half of our young people based on simple biases or inappropriate role models. In a social and information based society, it is very likely that education will become more and more critical for a successful life. There are many studies that associate financial success with successful college completion.

Beyond simple finances, education provides students with greater understanding of the world that allows them more freedom and power to respond to a variety of experiences. Because UMA has a student body that is more than 70 percent female, we too have a role to play in determining how to respond to gender imbalance in education.

The state should also play a role in gathering and interpreting data on this apparent gender imbalance, especially if we have concerns about keeping educated young people in the state to stimulate our economy. Many universities and local school districts could benefit from a greater understanding of gender in education.


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