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CommentaryEducation & Skills, Fatherhood & Family

The dangerous myth of male incompetence

Jun 17, 2024
Emily Oster

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is an invasive and difficult procedure. The overwhelming majority of couples who choose IVF do so as an infertility treatment or to avoid passing on genetic diseases. But as a recent article in Slate illustrated, for some would-be parents, IVF is chosen for a very different reason: to have daughters.

This behavior turns on its head hundreds of years of patriarchal oppression in which sons were valued above daughters, and parents engaged in a range of behaviors from sex-selective abortion to infanticide to achieve that goal. In fact, sex ratio at birth is one of the benchmarks used in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report in order to “capture the phenomenon of ‘missing women’, prevalent in countries with a strong son preference.”

Couples pursuing IVF in order to have a girl is of course still a very limited phenomenon. But it feels to me like an extreme expression of a more general sense, which is that boys are somehow just…less good. There is also evidence that adoptive parents have a strong preference for girls.

“Less good” is vague. I think what people really mean when they think this is: less competent. We think men and boys are less competent. We especially think they are less competent in the household, or to do any detail-oriented multi-tasking. And who wants to be a parent or a partner of someone who is incompetent?

The trouble is that this concern becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with both kids and with adults. It’s not wrong that there is a competence gap at home. There is certainly a work gap. In two-parent households women do considerably more housework even if they make considerably more money. What’s wrong is thinking that this is static, and cannot be changed.

I talk and write for parents, both about using data in parenting, and about family dynamics. And in this work, I hear a lot of these concerns about boys, and a lot of – putting it plainly – complaints about men. It increasingly seems to me like these issues have a common cause.

School is harder for boys

Let’s start with boys, adolescent boys in particular.

When kids hit the 7th or 8th grade, most schools get more executive-function focused. It’s not just that the work is a bit harder, but there is more to manage. You’ve got to get your homework to school on time, you’ve got to get yourself to class on time, you’ve got to clean out your own backpack. Many schools start to peel back some of the scaffolding that they had in place before.

At the same time, this is a period of uneven brain development. Boys – on average – are a little behind girls in these skills. This isn’t universal, the distributions certainly overlap, but it’s true on average. This means that, a lot of the time, highly organized 7th grade girls are running circles around their male peers.

This is something that I suspect many of us are familiar with both in our parenting and in our own childhoods. If your child comes home and tells you that someone’s backpack had to be thrown away due to a smell, or that a student was locked out of the classroom because they were late too many times, your first guess is likely to be that it was one of the boys. My own memories of the social dynamics of this period are similar to my parenting experiences.

There are two ways we can react to this. One way is to recognize it but still hold everyone to the same standard. We can give the impression that we expect your backpack not to have rotten food in it, and we are going to hold you to that expectation even if you’re a person with a more slowly developing frontal cortex. I would argue that this is the approach we take to most other types of heterogeneity in kids. If some children in the class are younger, for example, there is no letting them off the hook. I think my childhood held more of this expectation.

My worry is that we are increasingly reacting in a different way – with the message that we know that boys aren’t good at this set of skills, so we change our standards. We look at the competence gap – which is real! – and rather than suggesting that some people will simply have to work harder, we give an excuse. This excuse makes kids less likely to push to learn more, but it also changes their self-perception. If I see my gender as a reason I’m disorganized, then how can I motivate myself to get better organized? I am always going to be a boy! Maybe there is simply no point in trying.

New dads often struggle

My sense is the same dynamic is occurring in early parenting, with some of the same results. In couples with one male and one female partner, it is extremely common that early parenting falls disproportionately on the latter. To some extent, this is inevitable. Birth, breastfeeding – these are activities which are uniquely available to one parent. In addition, it’s more common for women to have parental leave than for their partners. This leaves much of the early parenting to moms.

As a result, couples often find themselves, perhaps when their child is a few months old, with a competence gap. This may have literally nothing to do with underlying ability – it may simply be an experience gap. If one person engages in any activity more than another, then it’s almost inevitable that they will become more skilled at it.

The question then is: how do we react to that competence gap? Too often, I think we react the way we do with the 7th grade boys. By assuming there is nothing to do about this. The brain is too small, or too oddly shaped, or some other problem and there is simply no getting around it. The result is, then, a small competence gap becomes a bigger one.

In this world, both partners may give up on closing that gap. And therein lies the resentment, and conflict.

The alternative way to react to this initial competence gap is to see it, but to react the way we hope to react with our boys. To recognize there is a bigger learning goal for boys or men, but also recognize that it is entirely doable. It perhaps is worth saying: men can 100% be a primary caregiver of children. They do it all the time. There is no underlying reason this cannot happen. But we should expect there to be a steeper learning curve. The key is to see the learning curve as an anticipated challenge, not an insurmountable one.

It may be hard. When you first are learning something new, or pushing yourself in ways that do not come as naturally, you will make mistakes. If we do expect 7th grade boys to hand in their homework on time, they’ll fail some as they learn. That failure may be hard to take, as parents or teachers. The balance here is to see that boys or men may need more time and space to develop their skills: and not to blame them for that fact.

Similarly, when people are learning to parent they make mistakes. Not big ones. Little ones. The diaper is on the wrong way. The nipple size on the bottle is wrong. The stroller is put together backwards. Your kid’s lunch is made incorrectly: once, my husband used the lumpy parts of the jam, which – little known fact – is the worst thing that can happen to a child’s bagel. If we react to this by snatching back the task, perhaps with some expressions of exasperation, we reinforce the sense of male incompetence. Better to take it as learning – sometimes, as an opportunity to figure out how to do it right the next time (like with the diaper). And, sometimes – this one is for the moms out there – by learning that there is more than one way to do things.

Emily, a Harvard PhD and Brown economics professor, empowers parents with data-driven tools. Inspired by her own experiences as a mom, she became a New York Times best-selling author of parenting books. Her latest book,
Emily Oster
Emily Oster, a Harvard PhD and Brown economics professor, empowers parents with data-driven tools. Inspired by her own experiences as a mom, she became a New York Times best-selling author for her books on parenting. Her latest book, "The Unexpected," released in April 2024.