The XX Factor

Do Men and Women Approach College Differently?

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece in which the author, Dr. MaryAnn Baenninger, a psychologist and president of the College of St. Benedict, parses what she sees as the differing educational experiences of men and women in college. Starting from the premise that many academics act as if “we live in a ‘post-gender’ world,” Baenninger argues that gender still plays a large role in determining students’ academic behaviors, expectations, and self-perceptions.

Refreshingly, this is not another article about educational access or, worse, something along the lines of “Can women be scientists?” Instead, Baenninger praises the fact that women’s access to top programs and professional fields has never been better; she even reports that women, according to her own research, are working harder and excelling further than ever before. What concerns her more are the boys: While their female colleagues are hitting the books, male college students are more likely to be hitting each other, at least virtually:

Men in college spend significantly more time in leisure activities (especially, for example, video-game play and athletic pursuits) than do women. College women are hyper-scheduled participants in co-curricular activities.

Baenninger implies that this might have to do with men’s inflated sense of academic ability and accomplishment—they think they can get by on doing less. Women, on the other hand, tend to underestimate their prowess and so work harder, leading to higher GPAs on average. The ladies are also more likely to study abroad and to attempt to learn a second language. In light of these trends, it would seem, as our own Hanna Rosin put it, that men are indeed on their way to being “finished.”

The Chronicle piece is less bombastic (if also less viscerally satisfying) in its claims: Baenninger is nuanced in her reading of the data, asking if perhaps, for example, men take more academic risks than women (electives beyond their major, more credit hours, etc.), which could lead to lower grades than if they stuck to a safer route. She’s right to do this, because if women were really just totally dominating everything, their successes should carry over into the professional world—which they don’t. As Baenninger points out, women are still terribly underrepresented in fields like politics and economics and are still more likely to be working in “background roles” than in top leadership positions. But if women are doing so well in school and men are such slackers, how can this professional imbalance be possible?

It’s a tricky question to be sure, but Baenninger does touch on one issue that I think begins to suggest an answer: Women are possibly encouraged to focus too much on the grade or the resume line at the expense of real learning. As most college graduates know, just having the degree—even one with honors—doesn’t guarantee success in a career. In fact, it doesn’t even get you a job. Along with a respectable transcript, a good job candidate is going to exhibit more abstract skills, like critical thinking, inventiveness, and social savvy, not to mention confidence—things not necessarily acquired in a classroom or reflected in a GPA. And unfortunately, they’re also qualities that are more often inculcated in men. This might not be the entire reason why women aren’t getting to the C-suite at great rates, but could well be part of the explanation.