If there are fewer than 50% females in physics, that is a call to action, argues virtually ... everyone in academia. We need greater outreach for girls, we need to change classes to appeal to them, we need to fund campaigns to convince women who are inclined to be doctors and help people to instead work in a lab, we are told.

Why, argue others? We need doctors too. Science is hard, so is medicine. If a young woman wants to be a doctor instead of a physicist, so be it. If the social sciences are overwhelmingly female and the hard sciences are less overwhelmingly male, it is a tough argument to claim all those women in psychology were forced into it because sexism blocked them out of chemistry.

Yet both cultural high-fives and money go toward high-profile problems and with the majority of people in America being women, gender issues will be high-profile. Sometimes it leads to odd results with even odder explanations. We are told that teachers must be telling girls they can't do math, but 70% of teachers are women. No Child Left Behind solved that issue, its standards led to girls achieving math parity with boys for the first time in history - but the federal government killed that program because of criticism it told teachers what to teach. The same people we are told are telling girls they can't do math should now have freedom to tell girls they can't do math? (1) 

Lost in the culture war are young boys. Young boys in school have no policy makers fighting over them. Christina Hoff Sommers wrote a book on the topic, "The War On Boys", which made the case that we spend so much time and money trying to help females that we are neglecting young men. The implicit belief is they will somehow make it anyway.

Yet we now find that isn't true. I have made similar gripes about the war on smart kids - during times of sequesters, the White House has no problem cutting White House tours and other minor programs in an effort to annoy people and win a public relations war - the surest sign of lousy governance, but cutting programs for the best and brightest kids is standard operating procedure in American schools and always has been. No one gets on TV and issues pleas for advanced placement students the way they do drama club and music and sports.

That culture war on males has been successful - now it has even invaded the home environment. Shankar Vedantam, writing at NPR, discusses the paper Boy-Girl Differences in Parental Time Investments: Evidence from Three Countries by Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan. They say that, as children age, parents are now spending more 'teaching time' with girls than boys - and boys are suffering due to that gender bias against them. It's vaguely sexist to insist girls need something super-special to succeed in math - Larry Summers got fired from Harvard for saying that girls might need more help in math. Yet it is evidence of the old truism that stereotypes and favoritism are okay as long as it's positive.  

The economists, both of the Canadian National Bureau of Economic Research when not doing their day jobs, analyzed three countries, the US, Canada and UK.  They say the gap they found was a surprise, and a cause for concern, since everyone notes that early childhood experiences impact later life outcomes.

The result: We could be dooming boys to mediocrity in order to chase an increasingly long tail of female education performance. Societal norms have turned against males and that could mean diminishing returns while we claim we need to do more STEM outreach in an increasingly techology- and science-focused society.


(1)  No Child Left Behind was passed in one of the most bipartisan efforts of the last two decades - 384 to 41 in the House and 91-8 in the Senate - only the war in Afghanistan topped it as a major policy issue, with both John Boehner and Ted Kennedy cheering as President Bush signed it. And now it is being dismantled in the same bipartisan fashion. Every politician and everyone outside education unions recognized education was in crisis at the end of the 1990s but now the claim is that No Child Left Behind did nothing - any gains were rationalized as being due to improvements education had already made. We have returned to the status quo because accountability is a bad thing and programs were not 'fully funded' - which is codespeak for maximum extra money outside ordinary funding. To people outside unions and the government, this makes no sense - if funding buys education, just spend a trillion dollars and be done with it.