When he was rector of the University of Montreal, Robert Lacroix received an intriguing call from the president of the Union des producteurs agricole.

He wondered why the farmers’ representative insisted on meeting him. UdeM does not even have an agronomy department.

The man wanted to alert him to the shortage of veterinarians for large animals and to denounce the operation of “his” faculty. This specialization is statistically of more interest to men. However, the staff of the faculty of veterinary medicine is overwhelmingly female. The field is very restricted and since female students generally have better grades than male students, they find themselves there in the majority.

Since then, we have responded to this lack of agricultural veterinarians by opening a center specializing in farm animals in Rimouski.

But the anecdote led Robert Lacroix, an economist, to delve into the well-known phenomenon of girls’ academic overachievement from the other end: the undereducation of boys.

For years, we have witnessed a tremendous academic catch-up for women and we took it for granted that in the end, there would be parity. However, in Canada, according to the latest data, the student population of universities is made up of 58% women. And 60% of university degrees are awarded to them.

Why is there such a big gap in the academic achievement of girls and boys?

To answer the question, Mr. Lacroix gathered around him his fellow economist Claude Montmarquette (who died in September 2021), professor of child psychology Richard E. Tremblay and economist Catherine Haeck, a specialist in education and children’s health. They have just published the fruit of their work in a book⁠.

First observation: the educational catch-up of girls has been spectacular for 75 years, in Quebec as in all developed countries. In the early 1950s, women made up just 22.5% of total students at Canadian universities. In 1992, they made up 56% of the workforce. And now they’re around 61% (peaking at 63% 15 years ago).

During the same period, society as a whole increased its schooling rate massively. The rate of people without a diploma has dropped and the vast majority of people aged 25 to 34 have a post-secondary diploma. But it is much more true for women. The graduation gap is around 10% – this is true in Quebec, Canada and all OECD countries.

From kindergarten, we observe a better performance of girls, notes Richard E. Tremblay, world authority in child psychology.

At age 2, girls have “superior cognitive performance”.

In fact, you have to go back in time even further. A lot is played out in the wombs of mothers, explains Mr. Tremblay. Male fetuses are more affected by environmental disturbances – alcohol, drug, stress.

The phenomenon, however, is not new. It was simply hidden by the absence of girls at university and the separation of girls and boys at lower levels.

“Since girls did not have as much access to higher education as boys because of all kinds of social, political, religious barriers, we had no point of comparison,” says Mr. Lacroix.

But if we consult the evaluations made at the end of primary school in the 1950s and 1960s in Quebec, we observe the same type of gap in academic performance between the sexes to the advantage of girls.

The school system should not be blamed, thinks Robert Lacroix: “The gaps exist before school entry, so the school cannot be held solely responsible for gender gaps at birth. »

It is not stressed enough, Quebec students do particularly well in international tests (PISA). But in all areas except math, and especially in reading and reading comprehension, girls perform better.

This is the perpetuation of what is observed at an early age: at very young ages, girls show on average more social competence, emotional maturity, communication skills and general knowledge, and more cognitive and language development. early.

Intervening with mothers is in any case beneficial for all children, girls or boys.

“It’s not normal that from the age of 5 you see differences between girls and boys,” says the researcher.

“As much as I can’t accept inequality for women in the labor market – equal work, equal skill… unequal pay – I can’t accept it the other way around in the education system. It may not be a popular topic, but the data is clear. »

According to the researchers, “the subject is not under the magnifying glass because men do not seem to suffer from this gap at the moment. Their activity rate and remuneration are even higher.”

But the under-education of boys has a personal and social cost that will only increase. First, the professions that will disappear because of automation and robotization are those where there are more men. Many “exit doors” will close. Second, women’s study and career choices no longer have academic barriers; with the best results, they are free to choose. This is not the case for boys, more of whom are forced to exclude certain fields for lack of sufficient grades.

“The idea is not to replace female students with male students, but to bring in more people; there are many places that are not filled in universities, we can grow, ”says the UQAM professor.

In addition to its “intrinsic” value to individuals, education has considerable social value. A one-year increase in the average schooling of a population leads to a 10% increase in economic output per person, the authors note. It is also the massive increase in schooling that explains most of the growth in production per capita since 1960.

The wage inequalities that persist between men and women are no longer due to the under-education of women, but to other social mechanisms and to the general organization of society, which makes it difficult to reconcile work and family and the sharing of tasks.

Governments insist on attracting more girls into science, technology, computing and mathematics (“STEM”), with little success.

“I work on the transmission of inequalities, I have data of millions of people in Canada. I look at them everywhere, the inequalities. And they are not justifiable anywhere. I do not live well with the fact of settling an inequality by creating another, continues Catherine Haeck. I’m tired of being told that to realize my full potential, I have to be an astronaut or have a STEM degree. »

In other words, the professional choices of women are quite enlightened, it should perhaps be said.

What are the solutions ?

For the authors, the absolute priority would be to invest massively in early childhood. Every dollar invested early saves 11 dollars later.

They note the efforts of the Minister responsible for Social Services, Lionel Carmant, but that is still a drop in the bucket.

Mr. Tremblay cites an intensive program in Grades 1 and 2 that he helped implement, where at-risk children were identified and supported. “Very long term (some are in their 50s), watching with a control group, they do much better in life. » Better schooling, better health, lower crime, etc.

Despite these results, the program was never scaled up. There are “lots of micro-programs” in Quebec, says Catherine Haeck, but nothing systematic. “You shouldn’t just target boys, there are of course girls in difficulty, she says, but by helping everyone, you help the boys. »

The early childhood centers (CPE), while they have had a beneficial social impact, have not reached their target with regard to children most at risk. “We don’t see a beneficial effect on the children,” says Ms. Haeck.

In short, an enriched early childhood education system is needed.

At all other school levels, for which they put forward several proposals, the key is the identification of children at risk, and their support. Good programs have been set up to fight against school dropout – notably at the Marguerite-Bourgeoys school service center. But too little. “It’s clear and clear that we’re underinvesting in early childhood,” says Robert Lacroix.

“Children don’t vote,” concludes Catherine Haeck.