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Originally published Wednesday, May 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

Fellas, they're kicking our butts

Guys, we have a problem. The women are outdoing us in education. And not by a little, either, but by a lot. Consider some numbers. Males are 51. 2...

Guys, we have a problem. The women are outdoing us in education. And not by a little, either, but by a lot.

Consider some numbers. Males are 51.2 percent of the population aged 18-24. But women are 51 percent of undergraduates at the University of Washington, 60 percent at Seattle University and 66 percent at Seattle Pacific University. Nationwide, it's 57 percent.

Among whites 18-24, about 41 percent of women are in college — but only 36 percent of men. The gender gap is greater among African Americans and Hispanics.

At the Washington Education Foundation, which dispenses college scholarships to low-income students with good grades, 62 percent of the high-schoolers who apply are female. "We have a much harder time to get young men to engage," says Lorraine Solaegui, director of scholarship services. She says the foundation is now taking gender into account in its outreach and selection.

Affirmative action for males? Nobody calls it that — yet.

Male underperformance is real and pervasive. It begins in the grade schools. On the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the girls beat the boys on the 10th-grade test — and on the 7th and 4th grade tests. Girls pummel the boys in reading and writing, and are edging past them in the boys' traditional stronghold, math.

Nationally, the authority on the gender gap is Tom Mortenson, who lives in Iowa and runs a Web page (www.postsecondary.org). He has been raising the alarm on the "the weaker sex" for 10 years. At first, nobody listened. Even now, he says, "There is almost no oxygen for this subject — the women's movement has taken all of it."

But the consequence of what has happened to men — or what men have done to themselves — is, Mortenson says, that many college women are not going to have college-educated husbands.

Why has it happened? For that fascinating question, several explanations are offered. None, however, is proven.

The first explanation is economic: that the modern service economy has dispensed with traditionally male jobs. This was offered in a General Accounting Office report in 2000, and I heard it from several sources. I think it has little to do with how well boys do in school.

The second explanation is political: that with all the you-go-girl propaganda from the feminists, we have boosted the gals but made the guys feel bad.

Are we that fragile?

The third explanation is social: that with divorce and out-of-wedlock births, fewer boys are being reared by fathers, resulting in boys insufficiently molded and motivated. Here is a hypothesis that can be tested, though I don't know if anyone has.

The fourth explanation is genetic: the eternal Y chromosome, the Tom Sawyer gene that prods boys to fidget, goof off and assert status and dominance. We guys have always had this, but maybe the changes in our laws, religion, social mores, families, wealth and opportunities have unleashed it.

Being a man was once a tough job. Also a defined job. Our culture offers less definition now, and demands less toughness. Indeed, a well-known UCLA study of college freshmen shows that the guys feel much less stress than the gals — and the guys play video games more and party more. Writes Mortenson: "Too many boys have been horsing around."

The trend is not universal. Among Asians, who attend college at higher rates than any other racial group, men outnumber women in college (though the women are doing very well). Among disciplines, computer science and engineering are still dominated by men. Men outnumber women in earning doctorates. But these are special areas. The general picture is of men behind.

I can hear from some feminist quarters faint strains of, "We Shall Overcome." That was not supposed to be the idea of sexual equality.

I close with Sam Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University, who says, "I think it is wonderful that women are doing well. But we've got to help more men get into college. And there is this feeling that men, particularly white men, have had so many advantages that they're on their own. But in 10 to 15 years, we're going to have a real male problem."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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