Boys Are Not Defective

Ashley Seil Smith

This article was originally published in The Atlantic.

Jordan has never had a female minister of education, women make up less than a fifth of its workforce, and women hold just 4 percent of board seats at public companies there. But, in school, Jordanian girls are crushing their male peers. The nation’s girls outperform its boys in just about every subject and at every age level. At the University of Jordan, the country’s largest university, women outnumber men by a ratio of two to one—and earn higher grades in math, engineering, computer-information systems, and a range of other subjects.

In fact, across the Arab world, women now earn more science degrees on a percentage basis than women in the United States. In Saudi Arabia alone, women earn half of all science degrees. And yet, most of those women are unlikely to put their degrees to paid use for very long.

This is baffling on the most obvious levels. In the West, researchers have long believed that future prospects incentivize students to invest in school. The conventional wisdom is that girls do better in school as women acquire more legal and political rights in society. But many Middle Eastern women do not go on to have long professional careers after graduating; they spend much of their lives working at home as wives and mothers. Fewer than one in every five workers is female in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

This spring, I went to the Middle East to try to understand why girls are doing so much better in school, despite living in quintessentially patriarchal societies. Or, put another way, why boys are doing so badly.

It’s part of a pattern that is creeping across the globe: Wherever girls have access to school, they seem to eventually do better than boys. In 2015, teenage girls outperformed boys on a sophisticated reading test in 69 countries—every place in which the test was administered. In America, girls are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests, to graduate from high school, and to go to college, and women continue their education over a year longer than men. These are all glaring disparities in a world that values higher-order skills more than ever before. Natasha Ridge, the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, has studied gender and education around the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Ridge believes she can draw a dotted line between the failure of boys to thrive in school and votes for Brexit and for Donald Trump. Disengaged boys grow up to become disillusioned men, Ridge says, left out of the progress they see around them.

And the gender gap in the Middle East represents a particularly extreme version of this trend.

“If you give girls a quality education, they will mostly run with it and do amazing things. It propels them,” says Ridge, one of the few researchers to have written extensively about the gender gap in the Arab world. But for boys, especially low-income boys, access to school has not had the same effect. “These boys struggle to find a connection between school and life,” she says, “and school is increasingly seen as a waste of time.”

Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children.

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