“Do boys have a future?”Understanding the Boys’
Underachievement Discourse in the
Context of Globalization
Po King CHOI 蔡寶琼
Chinese University of HK
22 June 2006
Boys’ underachievement:
a universal discourse (I)
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In UK, Ofsted & EOC Report (The Gender Divide) in 1996
generated media reaction
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“boys being lost”
“boys in terminal decline”
“boys being lapped by girls”
“boys in deep trouble” etc, etc……
Australia: increasing discussion of boys’ education; resources
put into compensatory programmes for boys
US: “Myth of short-changed girls”! “Boys, not girls, are on the
weaker side of an educational gender gap” (Sommers, 2000,
The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming
Our Young Men)
Boys’ underachievement:
a universal discourse (II)

Mainland China, mid 1990s
“Women Champions ” in U Entrance Exam Arouse
Concern
Academics Blame Shortcomings in Educational
System, 1996
Boys’ underachievement discourse in
HK: The EOC- generated debate
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1998, 1st time individual primary school
leavers “banding” released; which led to girls’
parents’ complaint about injustice
1999, EOC’s report published: found ED’s
Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA)
discriminatory
2001, High Court ruling: SSPA against Sex
Discrimination Ordinance
What was the SSPA like?
(1)Used results of Academic Aptitude Test (AAT)
to scale students in same school, to make
(individual) School Assessment scores
comparable. This was done on a gender basis;
(2) Ranked all students into 5 “bands”, again on a
gender basis;
(3) Maintained a gender quota so that fixed ration
of boys and girls within same area admitted to
co-ed schools
Arguments against EOC
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Boys mature later than girls, but they catch
up later; so they should be allowed a
measure of “positive discrimination”
School Assessment (SA) favour girls,
because they demand linguistic skills, and
memorization capacity
Girls’ school achievement owed to
“studenting activities”
The “Problem” of Female Success

Boys’ success is “natural”, so no need to
explain; girls’ success is abnormal and
indicates failure of system
The boys’ underachievement discourse:
does it hold water?


UK and Australia: girls’ academic superiority
exaggerated; does not extend beyond school
leaving level (young men are still the high
achievers in universities)
Old patterns persist:
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subject choice still follow traditional gender lines
girls still alienated from science subjects
classrooms still dominated by boys
Girls’ “overachievement” in HK?
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Girls caught up since early 1980s (9 yrs of free and
compulsory ed since 1978)
If one goes by participation rates alone, girls slightly
ahead (88.5% vs 83% for upper sec; 18.4% vs
15.7% for university)
But if one looks at public exam results (HKCEE and
HKAL):
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Girls superiority only in languages
More boys than girls in high-achieving groups in science
For arts/soc sc/commercial subjects, gender diff uneven
Boys’ underachievement discourse
detached from gender asymmetry in
society
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Gender inequity in workplace
Gender inequity in politics
More women in poverty
Family: unequal sharing of household chores
School: gender stereotypes in textbooks; boys’
domination in classrooms; gender stereotypical
views among students re: career preferences, family
roles, work roles and dating behaviour. While girls
ready to change, boys hold on to traditional views
Accounting for boys’
underachievement discourse (I)

Crisis of masculinity amidst economic
globalization
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Working class male unemployment, undermining
“breadwinner” prop to masculinity
“laddish” culture among boys
Insecurity for upper and middle management
amidst restructuring, downsizing etc,
Accounting for boys’
underachievement discourse (II)

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Backlash against feminist movement and
gender affirmative policies
But, this does not apply to HK!
Prioritization of boys inherent in
modern school system (I)

Linda Nicholson (1994)
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Increased public/private split in capitalism
accompanied by growing distinction between
male and female attributes
Schools to socialize boys OUT of the feminine
family
Prioritization of boys inherent in
modern school system (II)
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Valerie Walkerdine (1989)
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Construction of “rationality” highly gendered:
women part of nature under male gaze and
control
Progressive “child-centred” pedagogies: the
active child with naturally-endowed potential to be
nurtured by the supportive, passive (female)
teacher and mother
Therefore, female achievement is abnormal,
pathological
Prioritization of boys inherent in
modern school system (III)
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Victoria Foster (2000)
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Civic public realm of citizenship relies on
opposition between the public (male) and the
private (female)
Schools are part of the public realm
Women cannot be “proper” learner-citizens
The “space invader” perception of academically
successful girls/women
Is the school too “feminized”
for boys (I)?
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Exaggerated and extreme need for boys to
“prove themselves” (laddish cultures), often
resulting in destructive, aggressive practices
of homophobia and misogyny
End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation (HK)
survey 2004 found: sexual abuse of male
students by male peers prevalent
Incidents of (male) school violence

屢被欺負中二生舞刀追同窗 校園暴力兩宗兩
學生「講數」動武 《明報》 2005-10-19

3 小惡霸扯傷7歲同窗下體 事主發炎揭發11歲
小六生被捕 《明報》2006-01-18
Is the school too “feminized” for boys
(II)?
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Boy friendly programmes: curriculum and texts,
special mentoring groups for boys, more structured
teaching (instead of more expressive and
investigative modes)
HK: boys’ primary school–
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Academic contest designed in format of fighting video game
Film clip with clearly gendered-stereotyped overtones to
promote reading contest
More physical activities
Danger of such programmes: reinforce destructive,
aggressive masculine cultures
Is the school too “feminized” for boys
(III)?
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Francis’ study in UK
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Pressure for boys and girls to “fit in” traditional gender
expectations
Boys dominate classrooms
Girls hold greater ambitions for future
Girls’ awareness of discrimination at workplace a spur for
achievement
Despite instability in job market, boys remain complacent
For boys, threat of losing their masculinity vis-à-vis
girls an URGENT problem: the process of becoming
a “MAN” fraught with difficulties, confusion and
contradiction
What next?
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Emergence of new hegemonic masculinity in
schools
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The entrepreneurial school (market,
managerialism, performativity) undercuts
humanist values, leads to alienation, sense of
guilt and loss
But on the other hand, hegemonic masculinity has
a “feminine” face: “caring”, “team work”,
“empathetic understanding”, “creativity”,
communication skills
What next? (cont’d)
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As traditional gender certainties destabilized
(eg., loss of breadwinner role), and
And with new configuration of gendered
values and practices, can we
Intervene at this juncture of “crisis of
masculinity” to arrive at greater gender equity
(and a more rewarding life in school for boys
and girls?)
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