A longtime gap in educational attainment continues to hold at colleges and universities, including at USF, and it’s not what many would expect. Last semester, women outnumbered men in first-time-in-college enrollment by a margin of 20 percent, according to a story by The Oracle.
Between fewer applications and issues with retention, the gender gap remains a puzzling concern for researchers and educators. One cause of the gap, however, is relatively straightforward, pervading young men’s lives from cradle to grave: toxic masculine expectations.
Men are socialized to be independent and self-sufficient. As a result, men and boys struggling in school hesitate to use resources — like advising or counseling — that might help them get back on track. Rather than sharing their difficulties, they hide them.
These issues are particularly acute when it comes to men’s mental health. A 2018 literature review published in the American Journal of Men’s Health points out several unique challenges men face when dealing with mental illness.
Masculine expectations push men to hide symptoms and avoid seeking help. Their peer networks are smaller with fewer close friendships, narrowing their support systems. When men do seek help, counselors and therapists are less likely to recognize a problem, even when they make their distress explicit.
The review concluded that men with anxiety and depression are more likely than women to externalize their symptoms through distraction, substance use and aggression.
These tendencies are particularly problematic in a school setting. Across all levels, education typically demands obedience to authority, close adherence to rules and diligent time management.
Boys and young men facing distress are more likely to break these demands. They could lash out at teachers and other students or otherwise drop off the radar with drugs and alcohol, leading to disciplinary action and chronic absenteeism.
In K-12, that means many boys develop behavior issues. In college, that could mean binge drinking, drug use and missing class, all implicitly accepted features of college life.
Relatively little research examines these impacts in higher education, but the trend in K-12 is clear.
A 2016 study from researchers at Northwestern University looked at nearly 250,000 siblings in public schools, finding that even within families, boys had higher rates of suspensions and absences than girls, with an especially stark gap in high-poverty schools.
Taken together, the challenges facing many young men are a web of difficulties at the intersection of mental health, material disadvantage and unhelpful gender roles.
To help address the gap, USF has initiatives like Men of Excellence, a project of Housing and Residential Education that helps men build life skills. USF representatives, meanwhile, have spoken at local middle and high schools to encourage college attendance and uplift male role models.
There’s still more to be done, however, both in K-12 and higher education. One step is training educators and clinicians to recognize the unique ways that men and young boys express distress, treating destructive behaviors as warning signs for intervention rather than as problems to be punished.
Another step is teaching boys at a young age to share their feelings rather than hiding or lashing out, while cultivating an environment where vulnerability is welcomed.
From kindergarten to college, toxic masculinity is leaving huge numbers of men behind. It’s time to call out the cause of these adverse outcomes and carve out institutions that allow men and boys to be their best selves. For roughly half the population, their futures depend on it.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.