Ms.-ing the point on boys and girls


TODAY, parents across the country are participating in the third annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day (TODTWD). Sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women, the event's goal is to give girls ages 9-15 the opportunity "to learn first-hand the exciting range of life options. . ." and to get girls to "believe in themselves, their abilities, and by extension, their futures."

As the father of two daughters, I'm all for exposing my girls to every possible career and life opportunity. And at first blush, TODTWD sounds like a great idea. But after taking a long, close look at the Ms. Foundation's literature, I'm not so sure.

TODTWD was started in 1993 to respond to "disturbing research findings on the adolescent development of girls." One study, conducted by the American Association of University Women, found that during adolescence, girls suffer a dramatic drop in self-esteem. At age nine, 60 percent of girls and 69 percent of boys say they're "happy the way I am." But by age 16, only 29 percent of girls and 46 percent of boys give that answer -- a 17-point "gender gap." This, says the AAUW, negatively affects girls' chances for academic and professional success.

These alarming findings were front-page news for weeks and sparked a national outcry. But they weren't very accurate.

Media coverage of the study neglected to tell us that there were five possible responses to the "I'm happy the way I am" statement: "Always true," "Sort of true," "Sometimes true/sometimes false," "Sort of false," and "Always false." Unfortunately, the only answer ever cited -- by the media, the AAUW, and the Ms. Foundation -- is "Always true." The rest were ignored. In reality, however, besides the 29 percent of girls who answered "Always true," 34 percent answered "Sort of true" and 25 percent "Sometimes true/sometimes false" -- a total of 88 percent. Boys' total was 92 percent, leaving a negligible four-point "gender gap."

According to researcher Christina Hoff Sommers, few child psychologists would consider any answers but "Sort of false" or "Always false" -- and perhaps only the latter -- as a sign of dangerously low self-esteem. But the distinct impression we get from the study is that most girls aren't happy with they way they are. Ms. Sommers feels that the AAUW's findings (and, by extension, the Ms. Foundation's reliance on them) are "advocacy research . . . undertaken with an eye to 'proving' conclusions that advocates are ideologically committed to and that they find politically useful."

The TODTWD literature also cites studies showing that teachers give less attention to girls than to boys, and that girls get lower scores in math and science. As a result, we're told, girls' futures are dimmer than boys'. But are these conclusions accurate or just more advocacy research?

According to writer Rita Kramer, even if teachers do pay more attention to boys than girls, it's "a leap of faith" to conclude that boys therefore are learning more.

Reliable studies show that much of the attention boys receive is negative -- they get 8 to 10 times more reprimands than girls. Boys are about 33 percent more likely than girls to be held back in school, and 24 percent more boys drop out. Yes, boys outscore girls by 3 points in math and 11 in science. However, girls outscore boys by 13 points in reading and 24 in writing. Finally, 55 percent of college students are female.

The media's -- and the public's -- willingness to blindly buy into the idea that girls are being discriminated against is eerily reminiscent of another hoax.

Remember the Harvard-Yale study that showed that single women over 30 had virtually no chance of getting married? Like )) the Ms. Foundation research, it was front-page news. And, like the Ms. research, it was completely debunked.

In her best-selling book, "Backlash," Susan Faludi brilliantly demonstrates that the Harvard-Yale study was deeply flawed and completely contradicted by more reliable research. A few months later, the "man shortage" study was revised. But the media "relegated it to the inside pages, when they reported it at all."

Far worse, though, was the response. In the year after the study was released, the proportion of single women who feared they would never marry nearly doubled. Thanks to poor research and irresponsible media hype, frightened women began to marry younger and in greater numbers.

Unfortunately, the same kind of hype now surrounds Take Our Daughters to Work Day. I'm seriously worried that if we keep telling our daughters they have a self-esteem problem, they'll develop one; if we keep telling them they're not being called on in class, they won't bother to raise their hands; and if we keep telling them they're being shortchanged when they're not, they'll develop into helpless victims instead of strong, independent women.

Sadly, unlike the "man shortage" hoax, the "self-esteem" hoax is being perpetrated by women -- women so carried away by a culture of victimization that don't realize that they are hurting our daughters.

"The statistics the popular culture chooses to promote most heavily are the very statistics we should view with the most caution," writes Ms. Faludi. "They may well be in wide circulation not because they are true but because they support widely held media preconceptions."

Does this mean we should junk TODTWD? Well, yes and no. Clearly, both boys and girls have specific needs that are not being met. So why not have a Take Our Children To Work Day and spend a little more time solving problems instead of blaming people?

Armin Brott wrote this for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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