The Hermione Effect
I’m usually sick to the teeth of the Freakanomics franchise, which is increasingly more about pushing anti-scientific, reactionary ideas than actually engaging in creative statistics analysis. But this post was at least not overtly misogynist. Just not well thought-out. The subject is an interesting one: Why do men graduate from college so much later than women on average? (It’s in response to yet another inexcusable David Brooks column.) Women are twice as likely as men to graduate college by age 22. This being the Freakanomics blog, they have to compulsively deny that sexism ever explains the differences in male and female behavior, and since that’s off the table, the pickings for explanations are meager.
1. Men are taking longer to graduate high school. This may reflect parents enrolling their sons in school later than their daughters.
2. Men are taking longer to do a college degree. It is becoming increasingly uncommon to finish college in four years, and many students take even longer. Are there gender differences in this? Why?
3. Perhaps men are more likely to take a gap year (or years)—seeing the world—before going to college.
#2 is the most plausible explanation, but it’s a matter of restating the original mystery, and thus not really an explanation. But if you eliminate sexism from the list of potential considerations, then you’re probably going to spin your wheels on this one forever. Luckily, this isn’t the NY Times but Pandagon, and we are going to put sexism back on the table as a potential influence. And I think that if you consider that, then what’s going on is clear—women graduate more quickly because society’s investment in us is far more contingent on good behavior.
When I was in school, I noticed this gender divide. Most of the people I knew who changed majors, took only 9 hours a semester, filled their schedules with blow-off classes that didn’t go towards their degree—and thus took 5 or 6 years to graduate—were male. And most of the people I knew who worked their asses off because their financial support would be yanked if they didn’t were female. The in-between people, who worked their asses off though they probably didn’t have to, were mixed.
Young women are supposed to get serious sooner. This isn’t a mystery to anyone paying attention. Over and over again, we hear about how young women believe they should get straight As, be in perfect shape, be perfect in every way and make it look easy—supergirl syndrome. This also includes graduating college in 4 years. Young women didn’t just collectively decide that this was how it was going to be, you know. They’re picking up on expectations put on them. Women don’t have a lot of room to fuck up, because every mistake is amplified through cultural misogyny, and that’s even before you take in to account all the people who are eager to jump all over every perceived flaw in a woman just for the hell of it. Part of it is that the opportunities to go to college and have a career are still relatively new, and so there’s this aura of probation hanging over women, like if we don’t “earn” rights given to men without question by achieving perfection, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when those rights are taken away.
Taken away, you know, for our own good. How many articles come out in magazines and newspapers a month about how women are made so miserable because, unlike men, we’re not capable of “doing it all”, so something has to give (usually our independence)? How often are we concern trolled that we aren’t happy enough? Or told that we’re so educated that we’ll never get a man? I’m sure many women roll over and accept the underlying message that women are simply inferior, but for women that have the drive to get that diploma (through either desire or necessity—the jobs for women that pay decently without a diploma are pretty lean, though the recession is making them leaner for men, as well), the reaction to these messages is often to guard against frivolity and flaws, to prove that we can in fact handle the pressures and are not inferior to men.
It’s not just a matter of self-perception or media images, either. Women with college degrees make less than men with equivalent education in equivalent fields. With that kind of disadvantage facing you, the natural reaction is to work that much harder to try to make up the difference. Like it or not, potential employers are just going to look more harshly on a woman who took 6 years to get a degree than a man. I don’t think women are unaware of this, especially on a subconscious level, and so they probably put their collective noses to the grindstone in college just that much more.
The Hermione character, like many, is a somewhat sexist, negative stereotype of female scholars as overachievers that irritate everyone else with their eagerness to succeed. (I will say that JK Rowling did make her more sympathetic than that stereotype usually is, and giving Hermione an outsider status helped remind readers why the young woman feels such pressure to prove herself worthy.) But the alternatives are even more grim than being tagged a know-it-all. Women have to do college like Ginger Rogers had to dance—backwards and in high heels. And while other factors probably influence this gap, I’m guessing the Hermione effect is the biggest factor.