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A trend that has been making international headlines in recent years revealed itself in University of Guelph-Humber Professor Nitin Deckha’s class.
“It’s almost without fail that higher marks belong to female students whereas lower marks belong to male students,” says Dr. Deckha.
Gender dynamics in post-secondary education – in particular the steady upswing of female participation rates - is only part of the picture. The story requires a much broader lens – one that includes the role of the breadwinner, gender gaps in motivation, the changing economy, and the increasingly female-dominated workforce as a start.
Neither the phenomenon nor the discussions around it seem to be in decline. The End of Men by Hanna Rosin represents the latest book of many dealing with this matter.
She sums up the overarching trend: The new service economy favors “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus” – things that “are, at a minimum, not predominantly the province of men” and “seem to come easily to women.” And so she concludes, “for the first time in history, the global economy is becoming a place where women are finding more success than men.”
It is in this idea of success and gender that Professor Deckha launched a research project. Funded by the university’s Research Grant Fund, two UofGH students worked with him as research assistants. Both female, he points out.
“As an anthropologist and as someone teaching at a university, I wanted to know, How do students learn to be successful? What does success mean to a male student versus a female student? How does this all tie in with education and career aspirations?”
Through surveying male and female university students across Ontario, Dr. Deckha explored intersecting issues of gender, education, and success.
But what he found was not what he expected.
“We get this picture when reading books like The End of Men that men are disasters. That men are deadbeat dads, that they lose their jobs and remain unemployed – that they aren’t as resilient as women,” he says.
He then pauses for a moment and inserts: “There is some truth to these stereotypes, as is proven by data. We know that male employment rates are going down while female employment rates are going up.”
“But I’ve learned that it’s not that black-and-white.”
He jokes that had he been able to show with his research that “men were slackers and women were ambitious, that would have fit so nicely with what everyone else was saying. But it’s not like that.”
What he found was a strong emphasis among men around passion and purpose.
“For men, education is secondary to the quest for defining and realizing one’s personal passion and purpose. In the female focus groups, I didn’t hear any women talking about purpose in the same kind of way,” he says.
“That’s curious to me.”
Dr. Deckha relates this curiosity to his original role as an educator. “Is there something about education – in primary, elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools – that is increasingly gendered towards female?”
He suggests that despite all the discussion around gender gaps in education, not enough has been said about the male emphasis on passion and purpose.
“Intuitively, what this is telling me, is that while our educational system might be failing boys, it may be because it doesn’t give enough of them a sense of purpose or meaning in life in our modern society.”