Gender gap widens

Alaska has one of the highest gender gaps in the nation when it comes to college success, according to the UAA College of Education. Males make up about 38 percent of the student population of UAA, despite making up 52 percent of the state’s population.

The College of Education and the Institute of Social and Economic Research co-hosted a conference May 24 to discuss this issue.

Leonard Sax, bestselling author of “Why Gender Matters,” explained that definite physiological differences between girls and boys influence how they respond to certain teaching methods.

“We’re used to thinking about gender differences, for instance, in regard to height,” Sax said. Men are not always taller than women, but hardwired differences between the sexes in regard to hearing and vision have very small variations within a gender and much larger differences between the genders. “You will find that whether that girl likes to play with Barbies or roll around in the mud in overalls, she will hear better than boys. You will find that whether that boy likes to sit in a room and read a book or run around and play football he will need a teacher who speaks more loudly.”

Evidence shows that there is a growing gender gap in education, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. And it is the boys who are lagging behind.

Sax and two other researchers were invited to present on some of the challenges of raising boys’ achievement, as well as on strategies to consider in confronting the problem. Faculty and staff from schools all over Alaska were present.

Sax said he is not trying to reinforce any stereotypes. “One of the objectives of the book is to distinguish fact from fiction, and to build only on demonstrated empirical fact,” he said. “We do not talk about boys being competitive and [not] girls, except to debunk that myth. Some boys are not particularly competitive, and some girls are very competitive.”

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Understanding there are hardwired gender differences on the cellular level is the key to ensuring fair treatment to both sexes, Sax said.

“This politically correct doctrine, or dogma…that there are no hardwired differences between girls and boys has done great harm to both girls and boys. I think it just takes the right kind of professional development or education for teachers to be able to break down gender stereotypes.”

He said most schools resent him even suggesting that there are hardwired gender differences. “I meet with great resistance.”

Molly Warrington and Michael Younger, from the University of Cambridge, UK are conducting a research project in British secondary schools, designed to improve boys’ achievement and identify strategies that decrease the gender gap in classrooms.

“What we then had to try and do with the schools is to identify certain strategies which we felt were going to be useful in raising boys’ achievement without, of course, forgetting the girls,” Warrington said. “We need to raise expectations and aspirations.”

Younger addressed the difficulties in implementing any strategy. “It needs a very sophisticated approach, it needs an approach which is nuanced to different contexts, and which must take into account the learning needs of girls as well as the learning needs of boys.”

A question and answer session followed the presentation. Sax encouraged those present to look deeper into the issue.

“There’s a lot of substance here, there’s a lot of good science, which we simply did not have time to show,” Sax said.

Warrington said that any strategy will take a real commitment from schools, teachers and parents.

“It needs time. You can’t just put it in there, try it for a term, and take it out again,” Warrington said.

Judith Kleinfeld, professor of psychology at UAF, was responsible for bringing the researchers to Alaska. She acknowledged that addressing the gender gap is a complex issue. “We’ve only scratched the surface,” she said, following the afternoon session.

After the evening presentation, Mary Snyder, dean of the College of Education, expressed her thoughts on the issue.

“This is a topic that we’ve given a lot of thought to, certainly as teachers, and educators,” she said, adding that she is very much in favor of being attentive to these differences. “Sex differences are real, they do matter.”


For more information on Sax’s research, visit