A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?”

Summary:  Yesterday’s post examined the evidence that women are outperforming men in college, and some opinions about the reasons for this — and the implications.  Many interesting theories were mentioned, most or all of which probably play a role.  However I believe there are deeper factors at work.  The moral basis for men’s role in our society has disappeared, and the moral highground is decisive in the war between the sexes — just as it often is in 4th generation warfare.


The simple reason for women’s increasing success in college relative to men:  they work harder then men.  Obvious social trends explain why.

Relative status of men and women in western society

Men’s status — that is, the status of the average man — came from man’s role as head of the family.  Breadwinner and provider.   Men worked long hours at difficult, often dangerous jobs to provide for their families (even today men’s shorter lifespans result in part from their workplace exposures and injuries).  Women’s role was lifegiver and raising children.  The relative status of these roles varied over time in western societies, but men’s were always at least equal to women’s.

Since WWII all that has changed.  Perhaps the key date was 1969, when Ronald Reagan (governor of California) signed the first no-fault divorce law — one of the most radical bills in American history.  Today every State allows no-fault divorce, and only a few require mutual consent.   (Conservatives usually take the radicals steps in America, since “only Nixon can go to China”).  That destroyed the basics of the marriage contract, leaving little left except natural affection.  And we see that’s not nearly enough to maintain the family as it was.

Now women must prepare to provide not just for themselves but also for their children.  As single mothers they bear the greatest burdens, and accordingly have the highest moral place.  Combined with so many other factors reducing the status of fathers, the result is is a revolutionary change in our family structure, probably unique in the history of the world.  Women increasingly own all the key social roles in America. The result is, as Irina Dunn said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”  (source)

The new world:  women on top

As boys and girls venture into adulthood at college, their varying prospects affect their relative ambitions.  Girls tend to see what will be required of them, and work hard to prepare.  Boys have less motivation, and work less hard.  Men need only worry about caring for themselves — and couch potatoes have few expensive needs.

Women’s goals are higher, men’s are lower — both aspirationally and morally.  As a result, men’s motivation is weakened; women’s is strengthened. These changes do not affect everyone, of course — but change occurs first at the margins, then spreads.  We have just began to see the effects of our evolving family structure, which will take generations to show their full scope — which will be beyond anything we imagine today.

The outperformance of women in college prefigures the world of tomorrow in which women earn more than men.  We’re already well on our way there, as seen the US Government’s Women in the Labor Force: A Databook (2007 Edition). Perhaps the most telling datum is Table 25 – Wives who earn more than their husbands:   26% in 2005, up almost 1/2 from 1987 (for marriages in which both work).  This includes graduates from the 1970s and 1980’s; the rate for couples who graduated in the last 5 – 10 years is certainly far higher.  What will the number be in 2023, after another 14 years?

Two readings giving more insight into this issue

To better understand these trends, we can turn to two works I strongly recommend reading.

(1) From “Is There Anything Good About Men?“, Roy F. Baumeister (Professor of Psychology at Florida State U), Invited speaker to the 2007 meeting of the American Psychological Association.  Consider if the conditions he describes change so that women are more strongly motivated to excell at school and work.  Excerpt:

{L}et me raise another radical idea. Maybe the differences between the genders are more about motivation than ability. This is the difference between can’t and won’t.

Return for a moment to the Larry Summers issue about why there aren’t more female physics professors at Harvard. Maybe women can do math and science perfectly well but they just don’t like to. After all, most men don’t like math either! Of the small minority of people who do like math, there are probably more men than women. Research by Eccles has repeatedly concluded that the shortage of females in math and science reflects motivation more than ability. And by the same logic, I suspect most men could learn to change diapers and vacuum under the sofa perfectly well too, and if men don’t do those things, it’s because they don’t want to or don’t like to, not because they are constitutionally unable (much as they may occasionally pretend otherwise!).

Several recent works have questioned the whole idea of gender differences in abilities: Even when average differences are found, they tend to be extremely small. In contrast, when you look at what men and women want, what they like, there are genuine differences. Look at research on the sex drive: Men and women may have about equal “ability” in sex, whatever that means, but there are big differences as to motivation: which gender thinks about sex all the time, wants it more often, wants more different partners, risks more for sex, masturbates more, leaps at every opportunity, and so on. Our survey of published research found that pretty much every measure and every study showed higher sex drive in men. It’s official: men are hornier than women. This is a difference in motivation.

Likewise, I mentioned the salary difference, but it may have less to do with ability than motivation. High salaries come from working super-long hours. Workaholics are mostly men. (There are some women, just not as many as men.) One study counted that over 80% of the people who work 50-hour weeks are men.

(2) Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind.

Women’s abandonment of the female persona was reinforced by the persona’s abandoning them. Economic changes made it desirable and necessary that women work; lowering of infant mortality rates meant that women had to have fewer pregnancies; greater longevity and better health meant that women devoted a much smaller portion of their lives to having and rearing children; and the altered relationships within the family meant that they were less likely to find continuing occupation with their children and their children’s children. At forty-five they were finding themselves with nothing to do, and forty more years to do it in. Their formative career years had been lost, and they were, hence, unable to compete with men. A woman who now wanted to be a woman in the old sense would find it very difficult to do so, even if she were to brave the hostile public opinion. In all of these ways the feminist case is very strong indeed. But, though the terms of marriage had been radically altered, no new ones were defined.

The feminist response that justice requires equal sharing of all domestic responsibility by men and women is not a solution, but only a compromise, an attenuation of men’s dedication to their careers and of women’s to family, with arguably an enrichment in diversity of both parties but just as arguably a fragmentation of their lives. The question of who goes with whom in the case of jobs in different cities is unresolved and is, whatever may be said about it, a festering sore, a source of suspicion and resentment, and the potential for war. Moreover, this compromise does not decide anything about the care of the children. Are both parents going to care more about their careers than about the children? Previously children at least had the unqualified dedication of one person, the woman, for whom their care was the most important thing in life. Is half the attention of two the same as the whole attention of one? Is this not a formula for neglecting children? Under such arrangements the family is not a unity, and marriage is an unattractive struggle that is easy to get out of, especially for men.

And here is where the whole business turns nasty. The souls of men —their ambitious, warlike, protective, possessive character—must be dismantled in order to liberate women from their domination. Machismo— the polemical description of maleness or spiritedness, which was the central natural passion in men’s souls in the psychology of the ancients, the passion of attachment and loyalty—was the villain, the source of the difference between the sexes. The feminists were only completing a job begun by Hobbes in his project of taming the harsh elements in the soul. With machismo discredited, the positive task is to make men caring, sensitive, even nurturing, to fit the restructured family. Thus once again men must be re-educated according to an abstract project. They must accept the “feminine elements” in their nature. A host of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streeptypes invade the schools, popular psychology, TV and the movies, making the project respectable. Men tend to undergo this re-education somewhat sullenly but studiously, in order to avoid the opprobrium of the sexist label and to keep peace with their wives and girlfriends. And it is indeed possible to soften men. But to make them “care” is another thing, and the project must inevitably fail.

It must fail because in an age of individualism, persons of either sex cannot be forced to be public-spirited, particularly by those who are becoming less so. Further, caring is either a passion or a virtue, not a description like “sensitive.” A virtue governs a passion, as moderation governs lust, or courage governs fear. But what passion does caring govern? One might say possessiveness, but possessiveness is not to be governed these days—it is to be rooted out. What is wanted is an antidote to natural selfishness, but wishes do not give birth to horses, however much abstract moralism may demand them.

The old moral order, however imperfect it may have been, at least moved toward the virtues by way of the passions. If men were self-concerned, that order tried to expand the scope of self-concern to include others, rather than commanding men to cease being concerned with themselves. To attempt the latter is both tyrannical and ineffective. A true political or social order requires the soul to be like a Gothic cathedral, with selfish stresses and strains helping to hold it up. Abstract moralism condemns certain keystones, removes them, and then blames both the nature of the stones and the structure when it collapses.

The failure of agriculture in socialist collective farming is the best political example of this. An imaginary motive takes the place of a real one, and when the imaginary motive fails to produce the real effect, those who have not been motivated by it are blamed and persecuted. In family questions, inasmuch as men were understood to be so strongly motivated by property, an older wisdom tried to attach concern for the family to that motive: the man was allowed and encouraged to regard his family as his property, so he would care for the former as he would instinctively care for the latter. This was effective, although it obviously had disadvantages from the point of view of justice.

When wives and children come to the husband and father and say, “We are not your property; we are ends in ourselves and demand to be treated as such,” the anonymous observer cannot help being impressed. But the difficulty comes when wives and children further demand that the man continue to care for them as before, just when they are giving an example of caring for themselves. They object to the father’s flawed motive and ask that it be miraculously replaced by a pure one, of which they wish to make use for their own ends. The father will almost inevitably constrict his quest for property, cease being a father and become a mere man again, rather than turning into a providential God, as others ask him to be.

What is so intolerable about the Republic, as Plato shows, is the demand that men give up their land, their money, their wives, their children, for the sake of the public good, their concern for which had previously been buttressed by these lower attachments. The hope is to have a happy city made up entirely of unhappy men. Similar demands are made today in an age of slack morality and self-indulgence. Plato taught that, however laudable justice may be, one cannot expect prodigies of virtue from ordinary people. Better a real city tainted by selfish motives than one that cannot exist, except in speech, and that promotes real tyranny.

I am not arguing here that the old family arrangements were good or that we should or could go back to them. I am only insisting that we not cloud our vision to such an extent that we believe that there are viable substitutes for them just because we want or need them. The peculiar attachment of mothers for their children existed, and in some degree still exists, whether it was the product of nature or nurture. That fathers should have exactly the same kind of attachment is much less evident. We can insist on it, but if nature does not cooperate, all our efforts will have been in vain. Biology forces women to take maternity leaves. Law can enjoin men to take paternity leaves, but it cannot make them have the desired sentiments. Only the rankest ideologue could fail to see the difference …

Similarly, women, due to the unreliability of men, have had to provide the means for their own independence. This has simply given men the excuse for being even less concerned with women’s well-being. A dependent, weak woman is indeed vulnerable and puts herself at men’s mercy. But that appeal did influence a lot of men a lot of the time. The cure now prescribed for male irresponsibility is to make them more irresponsible. And a woman who can be independent of men has much less motive to entice a man into taking care of her and her children.

… All our reforms have helped strip the teeth of our gears, which can therefore no longer mesh. They spin idly, side by side, unable to set the social machine in motion. It is at this exercise in futility that young people must look when thinking about their future.

Women are pleased by their successes, their new opportunities, their agenda, their moral superiority. But underneath everything lies the more or less conscious awareness that they are still dual beings by nature, capable of doing most things men do and also wanting to have children. They may hope otherwise, but they fully expect to pursue careers, to have to pursue careers, while caring for children alone. And what they expect and plan for is likely to happen.

The men have none of the current ideological advantages of the women, but they can opt out without too much cost. In their relations with women they have little to say; convinced of the injustice of the old order, for which they were responsible, and practically incapable of changing the direction of the juggernaut, they wait to hear what is wanted, try to adjust but are ready to take off in an instant. They want relationships, but the situation is so unclear. They anticipate a huge investment of emotional energy that is just as likely as not to end in bankruptcy, to a sacrifice of their career goals without any clarity about what reward they will reap, other than a vague togetherness.

(4)  For more information

(a)  Other posts about this subject on the FM website:

  1. Women dominate the ranks of college graduates. What’s the effect on America?, 7 July 2009
  2. A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?”, 8 July 2009
  3. Update: women on top of men, 27 October 2009
  4. For links to all these articles see the FM reference page Women and gender issues.

(b)  Posts about America’s education system:

  1. College education in America, another broken business model, 3 July 2009
  2. The secret about our universities (seldom even whispered among Professors), 5 July 2009
  3. Women dominating the ranks of college graduates – What’s the effect on America?, 7 July 2009
  4. Is a college education worth a million dollars?, 10 July 2009
  5. What should a student learn from college? Why go to college?, 1 November 2009



45 thoughts on “A better answer to “why women outperform men in college?””

  1. The Geocities link (for Irina Dunn’s maxi(m) about fish and bicycles) is dead, along with the rest of Geocities, and isn’t archived in Wayback either. Another link referencing it, less likely to vanish soon, is as follows:

    Irina Dunn, on Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: