From early years right through to university boys are underachieving in education compared to girls. While they started trailing girls as early as the 1980s, the scale of the problem and its implications have been getting progressively worse. There used to be sources of skilled and unskilled employment for less educated men to turn to, but these are less likely to be available. Even when it comes to apprenticeships, young women are outstripping men.
Education is almost the only route to all socially valued resources – employment, health, housing and a family life, so the implications of educational disadvantage are extremely serious for young men. Unfortunately, we live in a society where men are regarded second class citizens so their well-being is in itself never going to be regarded as a serious cause for concern.
However, the docile masses do nonetheless profess to be interested in ‘social’ inequality. If we want to address this, male disadvantage has to take centre stage.
The high demand for soft, people-oriented skills, such as caring and the service industry, plus flexible employment, combined with our various safety nets means that women have many routes to financial independence. Given the choice of pairing up with an under-employed male, mothers prefer to go it alone. Disadvantaged males may be less likely to marry, but they may be more likely to have children, children who they don’t support.
Single parenthood is the main source of poverty in contemporary society and it is directly related to our complete lack of interest in the well-being of men.
While it is common knowledge that single parenthood breeds educational disadvantage - what is less recognised is that it has a far more adverse impact on young men.
Academics are trying to unpick the channels through which this occurs. There is evidence to suggest that relations between single mothers and their daughters are slightly warmer than their relatationships with their sons. However, the seriousness of this initial small inequality is greatly magnified because, it seems, boys are far more responsive to both positive and negative inputs than girls.
So much for the easily ‘triggered’ female who needs to be wrapped in feminist cotton wool for protection. It is the male of the species who is more affected by the way that parents and teachers treat them. My hunch that males are more sensitive seems to be correct.
As a result, the non-cognitive deficits of poor parenting - externalising behaviour, acting out, lack of impulse control, are far greater among boys and this has been shown to have a negative educational impact later on.
However, the part of the story which still requires development is the direct hit that boys take because of the absence of the same sex parent.
While girls from single parent households know they will grow into creatures who can run a household, nurture a family, and actually give birth, boys have no such reassurance. This is where the provider role comes into its own. For highly educated men, work is a source of status and self-fulfilment. They also play a major role providing for their families but this usually remains utterly unacknowledged both within their families and in society at large. It also takes back stage as a source of meaning to their work.
For less educated men, whose employment is unlikely to provide intrinsic satisfaction, it is being able to provide and care for one’s family which gives the incentive and motivation to work.
Prior to the onset of feminism, just as females had some primary responsibility for care towards their offspring – so providing for their young was an essential step for the social integration of young men.
Evidence suggests that the provider role, far from discouraging family involvement is the catalyst for nurturing behaviour by men. Those who are denied this responsibility for family life are far more likely to ‘check out’.
These are the males who feel ‘disposable’. Who see no reason to go to the doctor, address their source of depression. Nor do they see why they shouldn’t pursue a life of crime.
The other major symptom of the disposable male is underachievement in school. Research I conducted with Geoff Dench suggests those boys who believe that men have a central role as providers in families are more likely to show an interest in school.
If we want to tackle poverty and single parenthood we need to address boys’ non-cognitive deficits, their educational underachievement, as well as give specific attention to the employment opportunities of males. However, all this will only be effective if we acknowledge, recognise and reinvigorate the crucial provider role of men.
Belinda Brown will be speaking at the Male Psychology Conference, UCL, 24-25 June.