The Lost Boys: Disadvantage Begins Before Birth

In recent years, a wave of high-profile books and articles have taken up the gauntlet to address the persistent gender inequalities lurking in the shadows of our work and home lives. From Lean In to Why Women Still Can’t Have It Allthe public square is abuzz with conversations on the evolving challenges wrought by an increasingly inclusive workforce that has yet to equalize its pay scales or revise the old expectations of domestic life. To this dialogue, we ought to add another observation: our boys, long the benefactors of an economy that rewarded industriousness and a masculine spirit, are increasingly falling behind.

That’s the proposal from David Leonhardt at least, who contends in his latest New York Times article that a new generation of boys is trailing desperately behind their female counterparts from a very young age. In behavioral development and academic achievement, research shows the early gaps between boys and girls actually get a foothold before kids even show up to kindergarten. But not only do boys start off at a significant disadvantage, they are apt to fall further behind over the course of their schooling. These trends have grave implications for the economic prospects of young men, who have already suffered a staggering blow over the last quarter century as factories have shuttered, wages have stagnated, and public programs have increasingly turned a blind eye to their struggles.

Three months after the birth, father involvement with girls already outpaces involvement with boys by nearly 4 percentage points

Though it’s difficult to untangle the knot of forces behind these changes, the rise of single-parent families is almost certainly one of them. Today, nearly 2 in 5 children are born to unmarried parents. Many of these children will grow up in single-parent homes, most often headed by the mother. Though children of both genders are affected by the absence of an active father figure, the negative impacts are significantly greater for boys. Original research by CFRP shows these dynamics are often at play early in the child’s life, and may even begin during pregnancy. In fact, long before boys are even born, their fathers are more likely to have disengaged from the act of shared parenting. Fathers of boys are less likely to provide help or financial support to the mother during pregnancy, and many will not attend prenatal appointments or the 20-week ultrasound. Not surprisingly, this limited involvement with the mother translates to limited involvement with the child; three months after the birth, father involvement with girls already outpaces involvement with boys by nearly 4 percentage points. Ensuring that children of both genders have an equal shot at the future remains a hefty challenge. Though the factors at play are countless in number, and fixes may never come easy, one thing is clear. Fathers can be a start.

-- by Daniel Dillon, Staff Research Associate

April 30, 2014