It's not your imagination. Young women really do have to work harder than guys in order to receive equal treatment, a long-held suspicion confirmed by two recent studies.
Recently Inside Higher Education report on changing college admission practices found that both private and public institutions are giving preference to male applicants, regardless of race or class. The New York Times predictably buried the lede, choosing to focus on the breathtakingly obvious reality that admissions officers are more partial than ever to wealthy students. But it's not news that the capacity to pay full tuition compensates for lower grades; it has never not been so. It is news that female applicants of all races are now held to a higher standard than white men at universities large and small.
For several years, this preference for guys was assumed to be a phenomenon of highly selective liberal arts institutions. Five years ago, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions at Kenyon College, wrote a famously apologetic op-ed in the Times called To All The Girls I've Rejected, in which she noted grimly that in the interests of gender parity, standards at her school were now "stiffer for women than men." Half a decade later, this Inside Higher Ed study confirms that what was thought to be limited to a few elite colleges has now become a nearly universal practice.
Men don't just get a break from admissions officers; they also get the media's focus. The hot problem of our era is the "masculinity crisis." Hanna Rosin worried about The End of Men; Bill Bennett writes this week of a growing male "maturity deficit." Pundits, pastors, pediatricians — everyone's got a book out explaining "what's wrong with boys." Certainly, there's some evidence that for any number of reasons, young men are falling behind. And since any discussion of the causes of this male malaise tends to be highly politicized, the debate about what to do about "slacker guys" is likely to continue for some time. But as we now know, one highly questionable solution is already in place: lower admissions standards for men. And Britz's 2006 mea culpa notwithstanding, the collateral damage to women of this attempt to fix the dude deficit is being ignored.
The damage to women doesn't just come in the form of the dreaded thin envelopes from admissions offices. The reality of being held to a higher standard is making another crisis much worse: young women's already worsening perfectionism. Girls have always been aware of an unjust sexual double standard; now they get to contend with the additional reality of much higher intellectual expectations.
UCLA's annual freshman survey has tracked changing attitudes among first-year college students for decades. The most recent results, released in January, make clear that stress is a female phenomenon. The Times writes:
Every year, women had a less positive view of their emotional health than men, and that gap has widened…
For many young people, serious stress starts before college. The share of students who said on the survey that they had been frequently overwhelmed by all they had to do during their senior year of high school rose to 29 percent from 27 percent last year.
The gender gap on that question was even larger than on emotional health, with 18 percent of the men saying they had been frequently overwhelmed, compared with 39 percent of the women.
Young men and women also dealt differently with leisure; UCLA's Linda Sax notes that the survey revealed that "Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don't relieve stress."
Since we now know that colleges across the country hold young women's applications to a higher standard, girls' substantially greater commitment to volunteerism has become a female competitive necessity. Though voluntary community service has been a graduation requirement at many secondary schools since the 1980s, it has taken on greater significance in an era of rampant grade inflation, in which virtually every college applicant may have a 4.0 or better. The more hours devoted to feeding the homeless or caring for cancer patients, the better the chance of distinguishing oneself from the huge number of bright, ambitious, well-rounded girls applying for a finite number of spots in the first-year class.
Young men, on the other hand, are collectively rewarded for their absence of academic ambition and community spirit. By the intensely competitive standards of college admissions, what might seem like a lackluster volunteer record from a high school girl (say, 5 hours a week reading to the blind) seems positively heroic when it belongs to a guy. The more time the mass of young men devote to the gym or to playing Call of Duty, the more the shrinking number of even moderately ambitious dudes benefit; they become the chance for a selective school to keep its gender ratio from becoming too female-heavy.
The traditional "stressors" in so many young women's lives – the obligation to care for family, the burden of chasing an unattainable physical ideal, the pressure to be sexy but not sexual, the worry about "running out of time" — all these were present well before the current frenzy of anxiety over the end of manhood. These familiar worries have now been joined by the depressing reality that young women have to be far more accomplished than young men just to receive equal consideration in college admissions.
There may well be a "guy crisis." But as the Inside Higher Ed and UCLA studies both reveal, it is young women who have become the anxious and exhausted victims of the strategies we're using to solve this problem of masculine malaise.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.