The Latest Way to Discriminate Against Women
By RICHARD WHITMIRE
There's something all-American about filing lawsuits. McDonald's coffee burn your lap? Dry cleaner lose your favorite pants? Sue! And somehow we find it perfectly logical that social policy should be guided by lawsuits. Upset by the University of Michigan's handing out admissions preferences to black students? Find a willing complainant and sue. Hey, quite often it works.
Why then does one of the biggest, sweetest lawsuits imaginable — colleges routinely discriminating against women in their admissions policies — go unfiled? Recently U.S. News & World Report laid bare the evidence. In desperate attempts to keep their campuses from swinging hugely female, as far more women than men apply to college these days, straight-A girls are told to look elsewhere, while B-average boys get the fat envelope.
Take the University of Richmond, a small, private college that tries to hew close to a 50-50 gender balance, according to U. S News. To do that, however, the admissions rate for boys is 13 percentage points higher. (They say they do it to accommodate university housing.) Can a private college discriminate against girls and get away with it? Perhaps.
Not so with public universities, as the University of Georgia discovered the hard way several years ago when its preferences for men and minority students got a legal thumping. And yet the same U.S. News article reported that the admittance rate for men at the College of William and Mary was an average of 12 percentage points higher than the rate for women from 1997 to 2006. Henry Broaddus, dean of admission at the college explained it: "I don't think that's an issue of equity; it's an issue of institutional prerogative [to create] a community that will best serve both the men and the women who elect to be members of that community."
"Even women who enroll ... expect to see men on campus," he added. "It's not the College of Mary and Mary; it's the College of William and Mary."
To his credit, Broaddus is simply telling it like it is. In a time when on average 57 percent of all undergraduates are women, setting the admissions gender bar equally could tilt the campus past the 60/40 tipping point that radically changes a college. And nobody hates going past the tipping point more than the women on a campus where that occurs.
I've just spent a year working on a book about boys falling behind in elementary and secondary schools (Boy Troubles, to be published by Doubleday in the fall of 2008), which explains their relative absence on college campuses. While my primary focus is explaining why boys aren't succeeding on the lower rungs of schooling, I keep an eye on the widening gender gaps in college. My hunch is that the public won't pay any attention to the problems boys are having in schools until someone notices the startling changes taking place on college campuses.
To date, however, my predictions about campuses flaring up over gender imbalances and admissions preferences have failed to materialize. Oddly, girls don't seem to mind that the University of Richmond sets a higher bar for them. And feminist groups appear more than willing to look the other way while public colleges such as William and Mary do the same. Understanding why requires taking a quick look at each of the players in this loose conspiracy:
The feminists: "There's no easy answer as to what's legal and what isn't legal," Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, told U.S. News, referring to admissions biases. In truth, it's murky only because groups such as the National Women's Law Center prefer to keep it that way. If this were a gender case involving sports discrimination, pay gaps, or tenured faculty, I'm guessing the lawsuits would be flying. But in this case, the feminist legal groups aren't out trolling for complainants.
In a phone interview with me, Emily Martin, deputy director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project, was candid about the dilemma feminists face with this issue. "I was surprised at how stark the numbers were," said Martin, referring to the U.S. News list of admission gaps. "I think it's legally questionable, even for the private schools." Title IX was supposed to head off discriminatory practices by colleges, she said. And what could be more discriminatory than turning down a superb female candidate for a less-accomplished male?
Part of the reason for the lack of lawsuits may be the "natural murkiness" of the admissions process, she said. Colleges aren't going to admit they're discriminating against women. And feminist groups are hesitant to test the legal waters, murky or not. For starters, feminists are the first to recognize the benefits of diversity — and isn't having a campus reasonably balanced by gender part of diversity?
Discussions with feminists while researching my book point to another reason. Alerting the public that women increasingly dominate college campuses will make it appear women have "won." And if women have won, why are they still complaining about discrimination in higher education? Feminists have far bigger fish to fry than packing undergraduate classes with ever more women. Looming larger on their agendas are boosting tenured-faculty positions and leveling what they see as huge gender pay gaps in the work force. Hence, from the perspective of feminists, the less said about undergraduate women taking over college campuses, the better.
The conservatives: Both private and public colleges break the law when they favor men over women, Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, told me. Why no lawsuits? Race issues attract the litigation, he said, because it's harder to justify racial discrimination from a legal standpoint — plus, colleges place more weight on race than gender in admissions. Finally, the biggest offenders are private colleges, and libertarian-minded litigators prefer not to tangle with private institutions.
College-aspiring high-school girls: If you were a straight-A high-school senior, and your admissions counselor ruled out your top choices because those slots were going to slacker boys, wouldn't you be mad enough to sue? Perhaps, but keep in mind that if nobody's looking for complainants, the chances are pretty good none will be discovered. Jennifer Gratz, the key complainant in the University of Michigan case involving race-friendly admissions policies there, didn't surface totally on her own. The Center for Individual Rights went out fishing for someone to represent their cause. So while plenty of 18-year-old girls may be grumpy about this issue, that doesn't translate into lawsuits.
College women: What most college women want is an equal gender mix on campus. Sure, they object, in theory, to the unequal hurdles they faced getting in. But once inside, they are far more upset about finding gender imbalances. They will be the first to tell you about the problems triggered when a campus passes the 60/40 tipping point. Boys who couldn't win a glance from a pretty girl in high school suddenly become players. And that's really annoying. Worse, women are expected to fulfill a guy's sexual desire immediately or risk losing a prospective mate to the next girl in line. Just get the men into the college gates, women tell the admissions officers; we don't care how you do it!
College men: You're joking, right? I recall walking into an all-guy freshman dorm room at the University of Maine at Farmington, where there are virtually two girls for every boy, and hearing: Sweeeeeet. What's not to like? they ask.
The colleges: As Jennifer Delahunty Britz learned the hard way, college officials are supposed to keep their mouths shut about this issue. In March 2006, Britz wrote an op-ed in The New York Times describing how her daughter got wait-listed at colleges that should have been shoo-ins. As the admissions dean at Kenyon College, Britz was in a privileged position to know the source of her daughter's difficulties: the boy preference.
"The reality is that because young men are rarer, they're more valued applicants," wrote Britz, who later in the article asked, "And what messages are we sending young women that they must, nearly 25 years after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, be even more accomplished than men to gain admission to the nation's top colleges?"
After the op-ed, Britz ran into a buzz saw of criticism. When she appealed to other admissions directors to speak out on her behalf, she was met with silence. At one point, she told me, she feared for her job at Kenyon, but top officials there, who knew about the op-ed before its publication, stood by her.
Nearly a year after the publication of that op-ed, I called Britz, who raised the same question I'm asking here: Why no protests? The answer, it appears, is that lawsuits need more than complainants. They need someone willing to honcho them. And in this case, the honchos are sitting on their hands.
Boy advocates: I know what you're thinking: What's this group doing on the list? Oddly, they are players here. The most prominent boy activist in the country is Thomas G. Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst who draws up lengthy fact sheets documenting how profoundly boys have fallen behind over the last two decades. But the idea of giving boys preferences for spots at good colleges is anathema to Mortenson.
As he wrote in a USA Today op-ed article, "Addressing the growing gender imbalance in college through affirmative action for young men addresses the symptoms but not the causes. It insults the efforts and accomplishments of young women. Far worse, it leaves many boys in the same confused condition they are in now. And it lets parents — especially fathers — and schoolteachers off the hook for their failure to raise and educate boys to be as accomplished, goal-oriented, engaged, and responsible as young women are today."
There it is. Just when you thought the saga couldn't get any stranger, the sharpest critic of a college-admissions system unfair to girls turns out to be a boys' advocate. And the legal silence goes on and on.
A Tough Time to Be a Girl: Gender Imbalance on Campuses
By RICHARD WHITMIRE
Casual sex. The mere words give parents the jitters, which is partly why the college pickup culture has received so much attention. News-media coverage ranges from checkout-aisle magazine stories serving up titillating details of alcohol-fueled encounters to full-scale reports like the delightfully titled "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right," released by the Institute for American Values, a family-values think tank.
Last year, the writer Laura Sessions Stepp created a stir with her book Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, which described what the author says is lost as young men and women move away from traditional romantic relationships and toward fleeting sexual encounters. Not only are women gambling with their health, argues Stepp, but they are making decisions they will regret in future years. The hookup culture could leave them bereft of the skills to build real relationships later in life. Whether Stepp is "retro," as some of her critics charged, may be less important than the fact that the hookup culture shows no signs of reversal.
One key element to the pickup culture, however, remains unreported: American colleges are undergoing a striking gender shift. In 2015 the average college graduating class will be 60-percent female, according to the U.S. Education Department. Some colleges have already reached or passed that threshold, which allows anecdotal insights into how those imbalances affect the pickup culture. What can be seen so far is not encouraging: Stark gender imbalances appear to act as an accelerant on the hookup culture.
Biologists and social scientists can't be surprised by that observation. In the animal kingdom, it is well known that whichever sex is in short supply has the upper hand.
College campuses are not immune to such laws of nature, something I glimpsed while doing research into why boys are lagging in literacy skills and college attendance. In 2006 I visited James Madison University, a public university with 17,000 students. At the time, women made up 61 percent of the campus population.
I chose James Madison because the president had just announced he would eliminate seven men's sports, a move necessary to comply with Title IX. In doing so, the university would bring its sports program back into alignment with its overall gender ratio. Many male athletes appeared shocked by the announcement, as though they had barely noticed the gender imbalances. Female students differed: While they protested the loss of the men's sports teams, they were very aware of those imbalances and saw them as involving far more than sports.
A junior whom I spoke with saw the sports controversy as an opening to expose problems she saw arising from the imbalances. Her first clue that something was different about the university came when she checked out the roughly 30 other students from her high school who attended: All but five were women. Her dorm assignment was the next revelation: Her "coed" dorm of 76 students included only 12 men. She realized that she was seeing a phenomenon unheard of at her high school, where the gender mix was about even. Women at the university would wear anything, and many would do anything, to win the competition to get a guy's attention. A striking brunette, she had no trouble competing, but she soon lost her taste for playing the game at a university where the gender imbalances changed the rules.
"My second semester freshman year I dated a guy, but it only lasted three weeks. I realized he was dabbling, if you will, with every other woman in his dorm. This was completely unacceptable to my standards," she said. However, her fellow female students were putting up with similar behavior. Many women there endure what she called a "mind shift," tolerating things they would never put up with in another setting where the male-female ratios were even.
The party scene was worse: "You'll walk into a room and there will be three boys and 10 girls. The girls are all competing to see who goes home with the boys. The guys have their pick." Another female junior agreed, noting that the phenomenon influences friendships, too: "I have a lot fewer guy friends in college than I did in high school. It's almost a trust issue, because I feel disposable. If he doesn't think I'm a good friend he can go elsewhere. A lot of women here don't invest as much in their guy relationships as they do in their relationships with other women."
A senior added: "The guys see that there are a lot more girls, and they're not interested in having a relationship longer than the next girl to come along. Men know how to take advantage of that competition. They'll set things up at parties to get girls to do stuff, such as having a slip and slide contest," in which girls strip to their underwear and get wet sliding through water on a plastic sheet.
As a result of the rising gender imbalances, the university has become "female centric." But while women may run the clubs, dominate in classes, and generally define the character of the university, the law of supply and demand rules the social scene. That's why the women are both competitive in seeking men and submissive in lowering their standards.
Men at the university don't dispute what the women say. "Since there's such an overwhelming number of girls, they have such competition between each other to get a guy," a male junior admitted. "The guys here aren't stupid. They're plenty aware of that and know that girls have to get into a fight over them, instead of what's normal with guys courting girls."
At James Madison and other colleges I visited with severe gender imbalances, the men appeared to pay an eventual price by failing to develop relationship skills and losing the trust of the women. When guys abuse the women, the women eventually get mad and take it out on all the guys, not just the abusers, the male student acknowledged: "It makes it more difficult for a guy to have a girl at the university come to trust him. A lot of times they think you're one of the bad guys who just wants to hook up."
As a public university that refuses to give admissions preferences to men, James Madison has few options for rebalancing its campus. It is not the only college experiencing fallout from such growing gender imbalances; it just arrived early on the scene. By 2015 what women experience there may become common at hundreds of campuses.
No shortage of grist for the supermarket tabloids.
Richard Whitmire is an editorial writer at USA Today and blogs at http://www.whyboysfail.com.