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Good money after bad in male underachievement studies?

Male educational underachievement in the Caribbean is a fact on which academics generally agree. That the issue extends beyond the school system to larger social habits, practices, systems and institutions is also an area of general agreement.

But there the consensus ends.

The announcement by the Commonwealth of yet another study on male underachievement, reported in this edition of Research Caribbean, opens up a debate on the appropriate actions needed to redress it. This, especially in light of the fact that there is no proposal for this in the Commonwealth Plan of Action on Gender Equality 2005 to 2015, or its mid-term review, which takes a holistic approach to priority actions that would target boys and girls.

The proposed new study is instead based on an inconclusive 2007 Commonwealth report, among other studies. Like many of the studies the report cites – and many it does not – it recognises the broader social contexts.

The terms of reference for the upcoming study insist on a narrow inspection of only the education sector.

This poses a danger: downplaying real issues of gender disparity that perpetuate discrimination against girls throughout the school system and after it, as several Caribbean authors have argued.

Another is the danger posed by adopting policy positions and taking actions outside of the context of the full picture. In the region, this has so far translated into some controversial regional experiments in affirmative action. In Barbados, for example, education officials allowed poorly performing boys to attend the most-favoured schools on the island, to the disadvantage of better performing girls.

Another pilot project, in Trinidad and Tobago, began early last year to convert selected co-educational schools to single-sex schools, even though the Commonwealth report and other studies do not present convincing evidence that single sex schools is the ultimate answer to male underachievement in spheres beyond academic importance, and even in this respect the jury is still out.

As a result, the study designers may want these books on their shelves:

The twenty essays in Engendering History, Caribbean Women in Historical Perspective, edited by Verene Shepherd, Bridget Brereton and Barbara Bailey (1995).

The seven articles in Theoretical Perspectives on Gender and Development, edited by Jane Parpart, Patricia Connelly and Eudine Barriteau (2000).

Wilma Bailey’s 1998 volume on Gender and the Family in the Caribbean.

Christine Barrow’s 1998 book Caribbean Portraits: Essays on Gender Ideologies and Identities, which includes Marietta Morrissey’s essay “Explaining the Caribbean Family: Gender Ideologies and Gender Relations.”

Works by Rhoda Reddock, the deputy principal at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Trinidad campus, including her edited 2004 volume on Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analyses, that included Aviston Downes’ article “Boys of the Empire: Elite Education and the Construction of Hegemonic Masculinity in Barbados, 1875-1920’’ and Odette Parry’s “Masculinities, Myths and Educational Underachievement: Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.”

Indeed, some of the recent research – done be males – are not dissimilar from the view of many of the female researchers and also suggests that the focus on male underachievement distracts from broader discriminations against women and girls, upholds male privilege, and reinforces patriarchy.

Among these are Mark Figueroa’s work of almost two decades.

His titles include “Male Privileging and Male Academic Underperformance in Jamaica” (1998), “Making sense of male experience: the case of academic underachievement in the English-speaking Caribbean” (2000) and the 2006 work, “Addressing Gender Differentials in Educational Achievement: A Caribbean Perspective.”

Figueroa’s research provides substantial evidence that a single-minded focus on male underachievement overlooks many complexities.

“Given a broad history of male privileging, such solutions are ultimately self-defeating. Further privileging of boys is therefore not the answer,” he stated in his 2006 article.

More recently, Aaron Kamugisha, a UWI lecturer in cultural studies, wrote in an article in Guyana’s Stabroek News (23 June 2009) that “men’s socialisation as men remains the problem.’’

‘‘It remains up to Caribbean men to recognise a simple and compelling truth, that the structures of patriarchal power that dishonor and silence over half of the Caribbean’s populations (women) post the greatest ethical question to contemporary Caribbean societies and ultimately prevent Caribbean men from recognising their own full humanity as relatives, partners, colleagues and friends,” Kamugisha wrote.

The Commonwealth’s actions also display little knowledge of the work of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the area, presented in its 1997 publication, Social Structures and the Changing World of Men. This publication is an outcome of ECLAC’s 1993 meeting in Trinidad on men and women in changing Caribbean social structures.

The discussants in this include politics and sociology researcher Gemma Tang Nain who has studied the impact of Caribbean state apparatus on women; Sonja Harris’ research on how men and women are differently affected by socialisation, opportunity and organisations; UWI Trinidad lecturer Jeanette Morris’ studies on gender differences in educational achievement; and health and family life specialist Annette Wiltshire on the eroding power of men and its impact on reducing healthy role models for young males.

It also includes the work on male underachievement in the context of fatherhood, sexual relationships, and male gender issues by now-deceased Jamaican sociologist Barry Chevannes.

University of the West Indies faculty of education professor Errol Miller coined the term male marginalisation in his 1991 publication, Men at Risk, which continues in his several other publications. Miller maps, among other things, the changing demographics of the Caribbean teaching population from mostly male to mostly female.

Not unlike the Commonwealth, ECLAC placed its interest in the context of the decreasing performance of boys.

“In several places in the Caribbean, more and more voices are being raised in concern with the perceived bad performance of boys in schools, increasing drop-out rates and a notice of withdrawal from the world of performance, productive activity and responsibility,” ECLAC stated in the preface to the 1997 report.

ECLAC’s report also recognised that as girls become more qualified and better educated than boys, they still earn lower wages and occupy fewer spaces at senior managerial and leadership positions.

Similarly, cautioning that gender equality cannot be viewed in isolation and in context of the educations system only, the Commonwealth report itself pointed to the grim reality that it is girls who comprise the majority of children globally not in primary schools and are disadvantaged by other structures and practices in societies. More than two thirds of them live in Commonwealth countries.

Against this backdrop, Sharma’s announcement provokes questions about his organisation’s priorities. On the one hand, male underachievement already is one of the more studied areas of Caribbean life. On the other, this announcement of a new study forces considerations of the value of studies that are yet to translate into specific successful actions for social transformation in the face of already existing research.

Looking for new data that makes the same point seem to be “throwing good money after bad” – money and resources that can be better used to implement projects and actions that are already housed within research recommendations and which promise more direct impact.

Inconclusivity does not always imply the need for more studies; it may also suggest that the evidence being sought does not exist.

Kris Rampersad, Research Caribbean Editor.