Richard Reeves is a writer, scholar, and senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is also the Director of the Future of the Middle Class Initiative.
Below, Richard shares 5 key insights from his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It. Listen to the audio version—read by Richard himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Boys and men are way behind in the classroom.
In 1972, the U.S. government passed the landmark Title IX law to promote gender equality in higher education. At the time, there was a gap of 13 percentage points in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees going to men compared to women. Now the gender gap in bachelor awards is wider, at 15 points—but the other way around. Three out of five college students are now women. This is a global phenomenon: In every country in the OECD, there are now more young women than young men with a bachelor’s degree.
These gender gaps can be seen all the way through the education system, from pre-K to post-grad. Girls are much more likely to be ready to start school. In the typical U.S. school district, girls are almost a grade level ahead of boys in English, and now neck and neck in math. Two out of three high schoolers with the best grades are girls; two out of three of those with the lowest grades are boys. In short, there’s a big and growing gender gap in education that nobody saw coming, and few are addressing.
2. Black and poor boys and men face the biggest challenges.
Those education gaps are much wider for the poorest kids, and for Black boys and men. Black women are now twice as likely as Black men to get a college degree, for example. One in four Black boys repeats a grade before completing high school. Black boys and men are worse off, in terms of discrimination in the labor market and criminal justice system, not despite being men but because they are men.
“One in four Black boys repeats a grade before completing high school.”
Most men earn less today than most men did in 1979. That’s a stark economic fact of life. But the economic downshift has been especially marked among working class and Black men. In 1979, the weekly earnings of the typical American man who completed his education with a high school diploma was, in today’s dollars, $1,017. Today it is 14 percent lower, at $881. Men at the top are still flourishing, but men in general are not.
3. Our politicians on both sides are failing.
Meanwhile, there is a political stalemate on issues of sex and gender. Both sides have dug into an ideological position that inhibits real change. Progressives refuse to accept that important gender inequalities can run in both directions, and quickly label male problems as symptoms of “toxic masculinity.” Conservatives appear more sensitive to the struggles of boys and men, but only as a justification for turning back the clock and restoring traditional gender roles. The Left tells men, “Be more like your sister.” The Right says, “Be more like your father.” Neither invocation is helpful.
What is needed is a positive vision of masculinity that is compatible with gender equality. As a conscientious objector in the culture wars, it’s important to get the facts straight about boys and men and shape responses that can command broad political support. A war of the sexes is a war without end or hope. We need girls and women and boys and men to flourish.
4. Our schools need more men as teachers.
There are a number of reforms that might improve the school environment for boys, including more physical education, a later school start time, and better food. Exercise, food, sleep: all in all, the education system needs to do a much better job of recognizing that students are flesh and blood, not just brains on a stick. These reforms would, of course, benefit girls too.
There is one school reform that would dwarf all of these, however: more men at the front of our classrooms. The male share of K–12 teachers is now 24 percent, down from 33 percent at the beginning of the 1980s. Male teachers are especially scarce in elementary schools, accounting for just one in ten. Early years education is close to being an all-female environment. It ought to be a source of national shame that only three percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men. There are now twice as many women flying U.S. military planes as there are men teaching kindergarten (as a share of the professions).
“It ought to be a source of national shame that only three percent of pre-K and kindergarten teachers are men.”
We need an all-out national effort, including scholarships and subsidies to get more men into our schools. Let’s start with a target of reaching 30 percent male representation in K–12 teaching.
5. Fathers matter.
Too many of our dads are being benched. Within six years of their parents separating, one in three children never see their father, and a similar proportion see him once a month or less. As these statistics show, the main reason for the dad deficit is the growing likelihood that fathers are not living with the mothers of their children. Missing from their children’s home, they end up missing from their lives. This is particularly true for the most disadvantaged. Among fathers who did not complete high school, 40 percent live apart from their children, compared to just seven percent of fathers who graduated from college.
The social institution of fatherhood urgently needs an update, to become more focused on direct relationships with children. Along with the obvious challenges, there is a big opportunity for an expansion in men’s roles. Among other things, that means equalizing paid leave for Dads and Moms, and improving rights for unmarried fathers, who are all too often treated as walking ATMs at best. Fathers matter as much as ever, whether as breadwinners or not.
To listen to the audio version read by author Richard Reeves, download the Next Big Idea App today: