Northwestern-led research reveals gender gaps within disadvantaged families

Drew Gerber, Assistant Campus Editor

A new working paper released by two Northwestern researchers reveals that siblings raised in disadvantaged families experience gender disparities in behavioral and educational outcomes at a greater rate than that of high socioeconomic status families.

David Figlio, director of NU’s Institute for Policy Research, and Krzysztof Karbownik, an IPR postdoctoral fellow, collaborated with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Florida to analyze records for more than 1 million Florida children to study the growing gap between boys and girls in educational and behavioral success.

Though generally U.S. women graduate from high school at higher rates than men, the gap between high school graduation rates is larger and has been increasing at a greater rate for black boys and boys from disadvantaged families, according to the working paper.

The research showed that compared to their sisters, boys raised in low-income neighborhoods by poorly educated, unmarried mothers are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems in school, test poorly on standardized testing and commit serious crimes as juveniles. By comparing siblings, researchers controlled for gender gaps between siblings in both high- and low-socioeconomic status families at birth, which they argue shows that family disadvantage affects gender gaps in outcomes rather than intrinsic biological advantages in girl siblings.

Additionally, researchers discovered that even within low-quality school systems, black siblings experience a greater disparity in outcomes than white siblings, which the authors attribute to the fact that black children are more likely to have been raised in more disadvantaged family environments.

Both gender and disadvantage should be taken into account when coming up with strategies to assist poor children, and research supports early action for boys, Figlio said in a news release.

“It’s something about family disadvantage itself,” Figlio told The New York Times last week. “Black people in America are more disadvantaged than white people in America, and if we were to reduce the disadvantage, we may see a reduction in the relative gender gap as well.”

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