woody_zimmerman_118_2007Halloween is a time when we like to scare ourselves – artificially at least. Our kids run around wearing costumes and saying “boooo!” We know it’s all fun and make-believe, so no problem.

I mention this only as a segue into discussing a national situation that is becoming genuinely frightening. It involves discrimination, but it’s flying well under the radar of national awareness. Most readers will think I mean racial bias, or discrimination against girls and women. The conventional wisdom is that gender-discrimination is still a serious societal problem that needs work. The truth is otherwise, however. We’re way past discrimination against females now. In fact, things have gone significantly the other way.

I sit on the Board of Trustees of a small liberal arts college where I was a student. In the nearly five decades since my student days, the enrollment of the college has gradually shifted from a nearly even balance of men and women to a current ratio of 60 women to every 40 men. This imbalance has crept up on officials of the college over a period of years. At first, the tendency was to ignore it because it seemed to answer societal demands for preferring women and girls. But officials are now alive to the danger posed to the college’s viability by a severe (and increasing) imbalance of students in the female direction.

Experienced administrators know that once a college’s enrollment gets sliding one way or the other it’s very difficult to turn things around without changing academic standards for admission. That’s not a tolerable result, so Admissions is faced with the Hobbesian Choice of either gender-tilted enrollment or lowered academic standards to bring the gender-populations into balance.

A few dyed-in-the-wool feminists might see college enrollments tilting toward women as a welcome development, but most college administrators – whether male or female – know that an unbalanced enrollment perturbs sports programs and ultimately affects the college’s curriculum offerings. Which sports programs can be offered is very much a function of the male and female student populations of a college, both as a matter of public policy and as a practical matter. Federal Title IX orders sports offerings to be mapped to the relative numbers of men and women enrolled, but it’s also a practical matter. A college might want to field a baseball team – as does the college I mentioned above – but unless it has a large enough male population, with enough men who can actually play ball, it won’t be able to do it.

Curriculum-wise, men and women have differing levels of interest in the sciences, mathematics, literature, languages, religion, psychology, philosophy, and other traditional liberal arts offerings. As a college attracts more women, science and mathematics courses receive less subscription, while courses more attractive to women gain subscription. An imbalance in the 60:40 range will certainly affect faculty levels, leading to both faculty unrest and to a changed external perception of the college.

Thus, gender-imbalance is not a trivial factor, as college officers are finding to their pain. To counteract it, some colleges have simply tried to enlarge their overall enrollments, but this is easier said than done in hard economic times when a year at a private college is pushing $35-40,000. Fifty years of go-go cost-increases have painted colleges into a corner on enrollment.

At some point, diminishing male enrollments become something like a “death-spiral.” A lower male enrollment diminishes courses and sports that men want, causing the college to attract even fewer men. Lower male enrollment magnifies the effect - etc., etc.. Ironically, fewer men on campus can also degrade female enrollment. Notwithstanding all the old jokes about women matriculating to earn the MRS, the fact remains that many women will avoid a college which has only 30 men for every 70 women. The numbers simply don’t work for women who hope to find a suitable mate during their college years. Whatever the conventional wisdom may say about young women being strongly “career-minded,” a marriage and a family still remain primary interests in the lives of many – perhaps even most.

It does no good for educators to bewail and denounce all this. A strong attraction of the college experience has always been the opportunity to meet potential mates of like mind and educational level. We might as well try to control the weather. (OK, poor analogy – we’re already trying that…).

According to current figures, women now receive 60% of all college degrees awarded – matching their approximate representation in college enrollments. The effects of this gender-imbalance in enrollment and degrees extend well beyond ivy-covered walls, however. Recently I read that women now hold a majority of managerial, executive and professional jobs. Moreover, 75% of workers who lost jobs during the recent recession were men.

I cannot remember a time when I have personally known so many men who are out of work and whose wives have become the principal breadwinners for their families. This, too, is a non-trivial factor in our society. An old adage runs: “When a man’s work isn’t right, nothing is right…” It goes without saying that being out of work certainly means a man’s work and life are not “right.” Having experienced this situation myself, I can testify that there are few things more disruptive to a man’s sense of wellbeing and a family’s tranquility and order than when he is out of work. It is a very bad situation.

The difficulty is that male under-representation in higher education and underemployment are not problems that can be solved by the usual government bromides of preferences, affirmative action, etc. Male academic achievement levels, in the aggregate, have been falling for more than a decade. Until they turn around, nothing much is going to change in the educational and vocational worlds.

This is a complex issue, and I won’t pretend that we can get at it in this brief commentary. But it’s worth mentioning the obvious: men start out as boys, and boys have been having a rough time in public education for some time. Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, says an initially well-intentioned effort to elevate the prospects and academic achievements of girls has morphed into a grotesque campaign to pathologize boyhood and harm manhood. According to Dr. Sommers, when boys are discussed at all it’s in the context of how to modify their antisocial behavior – i.e., how to make them more like girls.

“Routinely regarded as proto-sexists, potential harassers and perpetuators of gender inequity, boys live under a cloud of censure,” Dr. Sommers writes, noting that boys are losing ground in an educational system that currently devotes more attention to the needs of girls. Even recess – a valuable way for boys to let off steam since Lincoln’s time – is being cancelled in many places. Good move, when obesity is reaching “epidemic” proportions. (Officials say recess is “too rough.”) Some schools are now letting homosexual activists “help” boys find their true sexual orientation. (Very educational, I’m sure. Not quite the 3 R’s that I grew up with.)

The answer to this dangerous situation with boys will not be neglect of girls. When did education become such an either-or proposition? Surely we can do better than this. Authors of some recent articles revel in our “great societal experiment” of replacing men with women in the managerial ranks of our workforce. Pardon me if I lack their enthusiasm, but it’s not at all clear what results this experiment will produce. Do we really want to gamble on this? If so, who made the decision to do so?

National statistics show boys in grades 4, 8, and 12 still testing higher than girls in all academic subjects. The gap is widest in mathematics and science. To the extent that any of this potential is being wasted by an educational system that prefers girls to boys, for political reasons, the country is certainly being harmed. Formerly, we couldn’t afford to lose the potential of either women or minorities. Obviously, we can’t afford to lose the potential of men, either. We’re headed for real trouble here. If we don’t correct this educational and vocational imbalance, the result will be a lot scarier than ghosts, goblins and witches carrying bags of candy on Halloween.