Christina Hoff Sommers purports to have exposed research flaws in the numerous studies documenting gender bias in schools, and concludes that there is a “War on Boys.” Those familiar with Ms. Sommers’ long history of inaccuracies and inflammatory rhetoric in support of far right causes will not be surprised at the tone or content of her writing. Christina Hoff Sommers is anything but a whistleblower. She is well known for stirring up passions and playing loose with the facts. She describes herself as an equity feminist. Her comments suggest otherwise. According to Ms. Sommers, women studies (courses) are really designed to meet the needs of “homely women” in order for them “to compensate for various heartaches – they’re just mad at the beautiful girls.” (Esquire, February 1994). Her selective use of research has spurred numerous articles and letters to the editor to correct her errors. (See for example Democratic Culture, Vol. 3, no 2, Fall 1994). Many of her charges in the Atlantic have been previously corrected in print, only to be recycled for this article. I was startled and disappointed with the lack of fact checking that went into this cover story.
The constant stream of Ms. Sommers’ inaccuracies has forced independent researchers like myself to engage in a painstaking effort to correct the record. Even more troubling, her errors reflect far more than careless research. Ms. Sommers is a well paid advocate of far right causes funded by foundations like Bradley, Carthage, and Olin. She is anything but an independent researcher, being neither independent nor a researcher. Her introduction by the Atlantic as someone who pays “scrupulous” attention to facts is baffling, to say the least. Here is only a sample of the many errors in her article.
In discussing the research undertaken by my late wife and myself, Ms. Sommers implies that our work is not peer reviewed. Worse yet, she claims our research report “turns out to be missing.” As thousands of students and scholars who use our studies know, the “missing” report, several doctoral dissertations, a score of articles in peer reviewed journals, and several books are available through thousands of libraries in the US and overseas. The report Ms. Sommers describes as “missing” is in fact part of the Educational Research and Information Clearinghouse, Promoting Effectiveness in Classroom Instruction: Year 3 Final Report, National Institute of Education, Washington, D.C. (call number ED 257819).
Ms. Sommers has taught me how influential she is with the conservative, and even mainstream, media. I now get calls from writers in search of this sixteen year-old-study. They soon admit that “the lead” came from either Ms. Sommers or an associate, and when I offer to send them a copy, they quickly lose interest. Few if any of the callers seem to know what’s in the report. (Answer: A documentation of gender bias in teacher-student interaction done by a team of trained observers in over 100 classrooms in five states.) Oddly, in her first book, Who Stole Feminism? Ms. Sommers spent several pages talking about this final report (pp. 162-166).
While ignoring the major findings of our study, and even the existence of the many other studies that document classroom bias, Ms. Sommers focuses on the gender callout gap. We documented that in the classroom, teachers allowed boys to call out answers, only to admonish girls who call out with reminders like “raise your hand if you want to speak.” Individual classrooms differ dramatically in the rate of the male callout advantage. In our pilot study, we found that boys called out eight times more often than girls. In our full study, which involved many more classrooms, we found a two-to-one male advantage. In the 1995 edition of Failing at Fairness, we describe it this way: “Our research shows that boys call out significantly more often than girls.” (p. 43) Ms. Sommers does not acknowledge the problem. In fact, she comes out swinging, explaining that if teachers encourage boys to call out twice as often as girls, and then admonish girls who do call out, that is no problem at all. While that might be Ms. Sommers’ sense of instructional fairness, it is not mine. I believe that all students, girls as well as boys, deserve the teacher’s time and attention.
Nor is Ms. Sommers disturbed by the gender gap in tests. She offers a partial description of the SAT pool of test takers as a way of rationalizing the male advantage in the all-important testing world. In fact, girls lag behind boys not only on the SAT scores, but also on the PSAT, the SAT-II, and the ACT. On the Graduate Record Exam, the male lead is 129 points. (ETS, 1998) While Ms. Sommers cites the fact that more females are now taking the Advanced Placement exams, she conveniently omits the fact that it is the boys who are more likely to get the higher scores needed to gain college credit.
Ms. Sommers concludes: “The research commonly cited to support claims of male privilege and male sinfulness is riddled with errors. Almost none of it has been published in peer-reviewed professional journals.” Three decades of well over a thousand peer-reviewed studies have documented the disturbing gender gap in schools. By attacking a few researchers, she hopes to taint, even ignore the work of many.
Beginning in the early 1970s, my late wife Myra and I have consistently written about sexism as “a double-edged sword” and called for schools to respond to the very real needs of both boys and girls. Despite Sommers’ charges that researchers like myself are making a case for “male sinfulness,” such phrases are not part of our research lexicon. In Myra’s first co-authored book (Sexism in School and Society, Harper and Row, 1973), she included powerful statistics on how bias affects boys, and offered recommendations for creating fairer schools. I wrote one of the first curriculums ever designed to help teachers work with boys to counter the limiting impact of the male stereotype (To Be A Man, U. S. Office of Education, 1976). In Failing at Fairness (Scribner’s, 1994), Chapter 8 is entitled, “The Miseducation of Boys.” While it may serve a political purpose to cast our work as “boys against girls,” the truth is that Myra and I dedicated our professional lives to battling sexist assumptions that wound both our daughters and our sons. It is bias we oppose, not boys. While her misrepresentation of our years of research is bristling, we would be lucky if that were the only cost imposed. I suspect that propagating these misrepresentations combined with disparaging the entire field of gender studies is little more than a neon “exit” sign for members of Congress all too ready to turn back the clock on laws and programs that promote gender equity.
Ms. Sommers ends her piece with a call for better quality research, which gives new meaning to the word “chutzpah.” I doubt that Ms. Sommers’ will trade her right wing largesse or the accompanying media notoriety for a reputation as a “quality researcher.” What Ms. Sommers does has many names, but to her credit, she gave it one of the best: “Advocacy Research.” I am hopeful that the public and the Congress will not be taken in by her misrepresentations. We have no time to wage a war on either our boys or our girls.