(This essay was published in Time magazine last week.)
When I was in college, I followed a simple strategy: Go where the boys are. Sure, that led me into many settings where inebriants flowed, but my reasoning was strictly practical. Men ruled the world, as anyone could see, so the trick was to do as they did. No girlie major like art history or French lit for me. I started in chemistry and then proceeded up the gender gradient to physics, finally achieving in Classical Mechanics the exalted status of only girl in the class.
But that was an era when the cool kids smoked Gauloises and argued about Kierkegaard and Trotsky. Today, as two recent reports have revealed, it's the girls who achieve and the boys who coast along on gut courses congenial to hangovers. Boys are less likely to go to college in the first place (only 45 percent of college students under 25 are male) and are less likely to graduate as well. If I tried to follow my original strategy now, I would probably end up with an M.A. in Madden, the football video game, and a postgraduate stay in rehab.
The trend has occasioned some predictions of a coming matriarchy in which high-achieving women will rule over a nation of slacker guys. We've all seen the movie, an endless loop culminating most recently in You, Me and Dupree. That little girls' T shirt slogan--GIRLS RULE, BOYS DROOL--is beginning to look less like a slur and more like an empirical observation.
But it may be that the boys still know what they're doing. Among other things that have changed since the '60s is the corporate culture, which once valued literacy, numeracy, high GPAs and the ability to construct a simple sentence. No doubt there are still workplaces where such achievements are valued, but when I set out as an undercover journalist seeking a white-collar corporate job for my book Bait and Switch, I was shocked to find the emphasis entirely on such elusive qualities as "personality," "attitude" and "likeability." Play down the smarts, the career coaches and self-help books advised, cull the experience and exude a "positive attitude."
In a June article on corporate personality testing, the Washington Post reported on a woman who passed the skills test for a customer-care job but wasn't hired because she failed the personality test. Those tests, including the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs test, have no scientific credibility or predictive value, as Annie Murphy Paul showed in her 2004 book, Cult of Personality. You can have one Myers-Briggs personality on Tuesday and another when you retake the test on Thursday. Their chief function, as far as I could tell when I took them, was to weed out the introverts. When asked whether you'd rather be the life of the party or curl up with a book, the correct answer is always "Party!"
So the best preparation for that all-important personality test may well be a college career spent playing poker and doing tequila shots. An Atlanta woman I interviewed, a skilled website writer, was fired without explanation after a few weeks at a job. "I tried to fit in," she told me. "I went to lunch with the guys, but all they talked about was sports, which I know nothing about, and they all seemed to know each other from college." Poor thing, she had probably wasted her college years in the library.
The business world isn't totally hostile to higher education--an M.B.A. still counts for something. But as G.J. Meyer wrote in his classic 1995 book, Executive Blues: Down and Out in Corporate America, a higher degree in something other than business or law--or, worse, a stint of college teaching--can impart a deadly "academic stench" to one's résumé. And what are we to make of the growing corporate defiance of elementary grammar? At a job fair I attended, AT&T Wireless solicited sales reps with the question, if it was a question, "Are you ready to put your skills to work. Like the way you're a quick study. How you're good at finding solutions." Take that, you irritating, irrelevant English 101 professors!
Maybe we need a return to gender-segregated higher education, with the academic equivalent of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island for boys, where they can hone their "people skills" at keg parties. But we will need those high-achieving girls more than ever. Someone, after all, is going to have to figure out how to make an economy run by superannuated slacker boys competitive again in a world filled with Chinese and Indian brainiacs. I'd still major in physics if I were doing it again, just because there ought to be at least a few Americans, of whatever gender, who know something beyond the technology of beer bongs.