Durham, N.C. -- As scholars debate who’s ahead in the so-called gender war, a new study from Duke University finds that American boys and girls today are faring almost equally well across key indicators of education, health, safety and risky behavior.
Meanwhile, overall quality of life for both boys and girls has improved substantially from 1985 through 2001, the study finds.
The study, supported by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) and published in the journal Social Indicators Research, is the first long-term empirical assessment of well-being trends between boys and girls that uses a comprehensive, composite index. Duke researchers developed the FCD Index of Child Well-Being to assess trends in quality of life for children and young people.
"Since the mid-1980s, gender differences across the board have narrowed and are trending in the same directions," said study co-author Sarah O. Meadows, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Duke. "Both boys and girls have seen increases in well-being of 1 to 3 percent every year since 1998."
Study co-author Kenneth C. Land, professor of demographic studies and sociology at Duke, attributes this leveling out to changes in parenting styles, particularly among fathers, and to social interaction between boys and girls.
"Since about 1980, studies have found that fathers, on average, are investing about as much time rearing their daughters as their sons," Land said. "At the same time, boys and girls socialize extensively together, especially during their teen and young adult years -- at parties, for example, and at school -- so they are exposed to similar social influences and pressures."
Education is the area where the most significant differences remain. Girls tend to do better than boys on reading tests; the gap is largest among older children (12th grade). Boys generally score better on math tests, but the difference is very small, smaller than the gap for reading. Across all ages, girls scored an average of 10 points higher on a national reading test in 2001, while boys scored an average of two points higher on a national math test. Fewer girls go on to higher education in the hard and physical sciences.
However, more young women than men are receiving bachelor’s degrees -- reversing a trend that existed up until the mid-1980s. And although girls consistently have earned high school diplomas at higher rates than boys, the percentage of boys graduating from high school in 2001 dipped for the first time to below 1985 levels.
Land said the Internet boom of the mid-1990s also lured more young men than women away from school prior to completion of their bachelor’s degrees with the prospects of earning big salaries and stock options in a thriving economy.
"Men respond more to increases in market opportunities than women because they generally can make more money than women," Land said. "These young fellows heard the roar of the dot-com market and they ran toward it."
Other findings from the index include the following:
-- Health trends are very similar for both sexes, except that boys consistently have higher death rates at all ages than girls, especially in the 15-to-19 age group. The death rate for boys in this age group was twice that for girls in 2001.
-- Boys and young men are much more likely both to be victims of crimes and to commit crimes than girls and young women. For example, in 2001, the arrest rate for violent crimes among boys under age 18 was 24 per 100,000 resident population, while the corresponding rate for girls was 6 per 100,000.
-- Changes over time in rates of illegal drug use mirror each other between the sexes, but males report binge drinking at rates almost twice that of females.
-- Teenage boys are much more likely than girls to successfully commit suicide because they choose more lethal methods, but other research indicates that girls attempt suicide more frequently.
The FCD Index of Child Well-Being is a national, evidence-based measure of trends regarding the quality of life and well-being of America’s children and young people. The index tracks changes in seven major areas of well-being over time, from 1975 to the present: material well-being, health, safety-behavioral concerns, educational attainment, place in community social relationships and emotional/spiritual. It uses nearly 30 years of data from national surveys. Together, these areas provide a comprehensive summary of the direction of change in the well-being of children and youth in the United States.
The Foundation for Child Development (FCD) is a national private philanthropy based in New York City that is dedicated to promoting a new beginning for public education from pre-kindergarten through third grade.
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