This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

10 Questions for Linda Sax

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linda sax faculty photoThe fact that more women than men go to college is one of the more visible gender gaps in higher education today. book coverBut there are numerous other gender-related differences that characterize a university education – and they are revealed and redefined in a pioneering book by Linda J. Sax, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Titled “The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men,” the book is published by Jossey-Bass. Its central premise is that men and women respond differently to a broad range of factors within educational settings, which influence their academic, personal and professional development. Sax talked to Today Staff Writer Ajay Singh about the implications of this gender gap.

How would you define the gender gap?

In numerous ways. Gender gaps favoring women have to do with academic engagement and educational attainment. Aspects that tend to favor men have to do with their financial situation and their self-confidence and also their greater interest in careers that pay well. But it’s important to remember that most of the gender gaps aren’t very large. Men and women are much more similar than they’re different.

What are some of the major problems that men and women face in higher education?

The challenges that face men generally have to do with a lower level of academic engagement. For women, a major challenge is self-confidence – in math, in particular, and computer abilities. And this is very important because it’s also related to the career choices they’re willing to seek.

Women also face unique economic challenges. The good news is that we have growing numbers of women coming into college from lower-income families, but this presents a challenge from the standpoint of the student experience. It means that these women are more concerned about how they’re going to pay for college, and are more likely to get jobs to put themselves through college.

Why is it that women have less academic confidence than men?

That’s an important question. Research needs to dig deeper into whether men actually have more confidence or are just more likely to admit their confidence. I found in my research that if you take students of equal levels on their SATs – say, in the top 10 percent of math scores – the women are less likely than men to actually admit they are in the top 10 percent of their math ability. Men are more likely to acknowledge they’re in that top category.

One of the many surprising and paradoxical insights of your book is that although men report higher levels of confidence on average in their intellectual, mathematical and competitive abilities, women outperform men in academic achievement. How so?

I think that has a lot do with their overall intellectual engagement. Women do seem to be more engaged in the learning process and are coming into college with better grades and a better habit of focusing on what they need to do to get top grades. Women generally perform better in women’s colleges or colleges that have more women. In fact, both men and women tend to perform better in colleges that have more women.

Your other surprising insight is that the more female students exercise and indulge in sports, the better their grades. But for male students there is an inverse relationship between sports and grades.

I spoke with some staff at the John Wooden Center about what they think about this, and they weren’t surprised. They said that for women in sports, you have a peer group of other women who are both academically and athletically oriented. Many of the men involved in sports, the [Wooden] staff told me, are blindly convinced that they’re going to have a career in sports after college, so academics often takes a back seat.

Why do men tend to be more academically disengaged than women?

Women in college spend more time than men studying, volunteering, helping their families out, getting involved in student clubs and groups – activities that demand responsibility and commitment of time. Men, compared to women, devote more time to sports and exercise, partying, watching television and playing video games. These are areas that tend to pull men away from academics, though some, like sports and exercise, are beneficial in enabling them to release some of their stress.

The 2008 Global Gender Gap, recently reported by the World Economic Forum, says that although women around the world are nearly on par with their male peers in literacy, access to education and health care, they still lag behind men in sharing political power and decision-making. What are the implications of that for the gender gap in college?

I think it’s a sign that despite the fact that we see growing representation of women in college, we haven’t achieved gender equity. There’s certainly a great opportunity to educate women for positions of leadership and power – but just getting into the doors of college doesn’t guarantee that. So the implications are that campuses, despite the fact that they have so many women, need to do more to prepare women for key leadership positions both during and after college.

Would you say that society’s male-dominated power structure needs to be balanced before the gender gap in education is bridged?

I would probably turn that question around and say that by addressing the persistent gender gaps in education, we are better-positioned to achieve gender balance in the power structure.

Do you think our present world is one in which a better gender balance is irreversible, given how far women have come and where they’re going?

Many would argue in the United States that with respect to education, we have already achieved it – that the real educational gender gap is one that favors women, and that it’s men who are really at risk. One of the purposes of my research is to say, yes, women have made significant advances toward bridging the gender gap in education, but significant differences remain that have an influence on their development in college and potentially for their careers and life after college.

How do you think your research can help campus administrators and practitioners?

As the book shows, gender differences can have important consequences for students. Campus practitioners can use this information to improve how they work with male and female students and how they develop policies and programs that are sensitive to the needs of each gender.
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