In Saudi Arabia, 55 percent of university students are women; in the United Arab Emirates it's 75 percent; in Iran it's 60 percent. U.S. statistics are closest to the Saudis', with 56 percent female students. Conservatives argue that the U.S. gender discrepancy in higher education -- as well as boys' lower level of achievement in elementary and high school--are due to a feminist "war against boys," and the ascendance of progressive education brought about by liberals. In order to excel, boys need gender-segregated schools that emphasize competition and use traditional authoritarian teaching methods.
The cross-cultural data undermines their argument. Coeducational progressive education is scarcely the norm in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries. As for gender war, who could possibly be more oppressed than Saudi women who aren't allowed to drive, can't travel abroad without a male guardian's permission, and must be covered from head to toe in sweltering desert heat. (Well yes; Afghan women under the Taliban had it even worse.)
The truth is that a higher percentage of boys than girls exhibit qualities not conducive to sitting still, paying attention in class, and learning. Studies indicate that from a young age boys tend to be more impulsive, easily frustrated, and interested in rough and tumble play and outdoor physical activities. While boys do better in math and spatial skills, girls have better verbal and reading skills necessary for a large part of the school curriculum.
Due to chromosomal makeup, boys are far more likely to suffer from ADHD (attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity), severe learning disability, and mental retardation. These represent serious educational handicaps. More males than females are geniuses, but since their numbers are very few, they do not make much difference statistically.
This gender discrepancy in educational achievement was not apparent until recently since historically education has been a male privilege. In the United States, after World War II, higher education was encouraged for men and facilitated by the G.I. bill, while young women were advised not to do too well in school. The fragile male ego had to be protected, and an "MRS. degree" was far more important that a B.A. As a result, in 1970, 41 percent of college students were females. By 1982, it was up to 52 percent-- the women's movement had succeeded in changing women's aspirations, and removing admission quotas to professional schools like medicine and law that had kept female enrollment under 10 percent.
Many men who are not academically inclined make decent livings, doing useful work as firefighters, police officers, construction workers, truck drivers etc., but due to technology and the exodus of manufacturing jobs, there are fewer jobs for people without higher education. While there may always be a higher percentage of women in college (women are further motivated by the fact that women's jobs that do not require higher education - home health aides, day care workers etc.-- are paid much less than men's jobs), we should be doing everything possible to encourage boys to do well in school. Instead, studious boys are rejected as nerds, while jocks are revered. Parents are often more excited about their son scoring a touchdown on the gridiron than scoring an A in literature class.
Macho film heroes who show off huge physiques lead many boys to more concern with enhancing muscles than grades - the use of steroids and Creatin, a muscle enhancing drug, has become a serious problem in high schools. Popular music and lyrics are often identified with an inner city culture that glorifies violent macho male behavior. This absurd identification of black culture with inner city culture is particularly nefarious for African American boys who must contend with not only being viewed as nerds or geeks if they hit the books, but also as white wannabes. No wonder over 60 percent of African American college students are female.
If there is a war on boys being waged, it consists of encouraging non-functional and often anti-social behaviors at the expense of qualities that could provide many boys with more opportunities and better lives.