To All the Girls I’ve Rejected

What’s that Ginger Rogers quote about doing everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in high heels?

Turns out that young women applying for college have to substantially out-perform their male peers to secure themselves a space.

Rest assured that admissions officers are not cavalier in making their decisions. Last week, the 10 officers at my college sat around a table, 12 hours every day, deliberating the applications of hundreds of talented young men and women. While gulping down coffee and poring over statistics, we heard about a young woman from Kentucky we were not yet ready to admit outright. She was the leader/president/editor/captain/lead actress in every activity in her school. She had taken six advanced placement courses and had been selected for a prestigious state leadership program. In her free time, this whirlwind of achievement had accumulated more than 300 hours of community service in four different organizations.

Few of us sitting around the table were as talented and as directed at age 17 as this young woman. Unfortunately, her test scores and grade point average placed her in the middle of our pool. We had to have a debate before we decided to swallow the middling scores and write “admit” next to her name.

Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit.

How I remember this from high school. I can’t say I’m particularly bitter, because I ended up at my ideal school, but I remember sending out a dozen applications and getting two rejections — one from a fairly elite east coast university that a male aquaintance of mine got in to. Which would be fine, except that I had taken almost every honors and AP class offered at my high school, and he wasn’t in a single one of them. His GPA was mediocre, as were his SAT scores (I don’t know exactly what they were, but I think his SATs hovered somewhere around 1000). He was decent at a sport, which I suppose was the tipping point, but didn’t do any other activities or community service. I remember, despite not being particularly attached to that school, feeling like it was a little unfair. Not my rejection, per se — because people get rejected all the time, they have thousands of amazing candidates, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was a “victim” of their admissions policies. But, you know, it was a little thorn in my side.

Now, I can already see the argument coming: “But you support affirmative action to diversify the student body. Why not support admissions policies that favor men over women in order to keep the student body diverse?”

First, I should say that I’m not unilaterally opposed to these policies. I think they have a place, just not to the degree that they’re currently used. Second, my view on affirmative action is that it’s a bandaid on a much larger problem. Affirmative action is necessary because race in this country is still meaningfully linked to economic and social class. Certain racial groups have been historically disenfranchised and oppressed, and that disenfranchisement and oppression continues today. That has an effect on access to resources, financial stability and education. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods tend to have better schools because property taxes there are higher and so their schools are better funded. White students don’t grow up with the same social baggage that black and brown students deal with on a daily basis — the small acts of discrimination and bigotry that are too often invisible for people (like me) who come from places of privilege. Affirmative action is a recognition that we aren’t on an even playing field, and that certain groups of people start life out with substantially more advantage than others.

A better solution, of course, is to work to level the playing field from the get-go, so we’re all on the same starting line. But doing that through legislation has generally failed (thanks to both political parties), and social shifts have to happen as well in order to make it any sort of reality. That has been slow-moving. So affirmative action addresses the problem the best way that a program instituted that late in the educational process can.

In that sense, affirmative action is both an attempt to even things out (albeit a later than would be ideal) as well as an expression that institutions of higher learning value diversity, and that an academic body made up of lots of different kinds of people with lots of different viewpoints is preferable to one that is homogenous.

That first objective isn’t acheived by admitting less-qualified men just because of their gender. Another issue is the fact that women generally have to go to college in order to secure themselves a well-paying job (unless they want to be strippers or prostitutes, two occupations which pay women better than men). There are many traditionally male careers that are well paying and don’t demand any sort of higher education. Women, of course, can choose those occupations as well, but they’re harder for us to break in to.

If young men aren’t acheiving as highly as young women — and, apparently, they aren’t — it isn’t because of historical disenfranchisement, or lack of access to resources, or pervasive social forces which continue to hold them down. People of all races, social classes and economic groups are split pretty evenly down the middle when it comes to sex — about half of all priveleged people are men, and about half of all non-privileged are men as well (not that it divides that easily into two categories, but you understand what I mean). Now, there are certainly degrees of privilege which are compounded by gender, but being male isn’t typically a disadvantage. So I’m not sure that you can make the same argument for “male affirmative action” as you can for race-conscious admissions policies. Thoughts?

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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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30 Responses to To All the Girls I’ve Rejected

  1. Hugo says:

    Well, I’ll need to think this out more, but Jill, this is an excellent introduction to the problem. And I’m in complete agreement that offering “affirmative action” for the most historically privileged group in the country is a monumental absurdity. But ignoring male underachievement isn’t an option either, and it’s clear that we need to be, as you say, devoting resources to promote academic success for young boys.

    But we’ve gotta do that without turning our backs on their sisters. Success can’t be a zero-sum game.

  2. Cathy says:

    What about affirmative action from the view point of Asians/Asian Americans?

  3. Chet says:

    Success can’t be a zero-sum game.

    Isn’t it, though? I mean, name a resource, and it’s limited. Take more from a limited resource, and that means that someone else gets less.

    I appreciate the sentiment, but it doesn’t seem to correspond to reality. Maybe I’m just cynical today but I can’t really think of any resource that isn’t essentially zero-sum.

  4. Roni says:

    I don’t have all the stats at my fingers, but over the past 20 years, the total number of students enrolled at a given university has gone up. The students filling those seats have been mostly women. So the facat that the % of men has been going down isn’t that women are pushing me out, we’re just outnumbering them. That said, the state of funding for higher ed, esp state run/supported institutions is going DOWN. So in response, what does one do? Raise tuition and cut back on the # of students enrolled.

    I think part of the solution to this problem is to get the general population to understand that we need higher ed and we need to fund it just like we want to fund PK-12.

  5. Laurie says:

    I think the question is: why are these young men underperforming? Is it a lack of preparation (prior to college)? Or a lack of effort once they get to college? Are they coasting because they have always been *able* to coast and get by, or are they actually lacking certain skills?

    Or is it in comparison to young women who have literally had to work harder to get the same level of recognition in the past, and now they are USED TO overachieving, such that it makes the young men look like they are underachieving in comparison?

    I haven’t read the studies, so I really don’t know what the stats are. I’m just throwing out possibilities here. I DO know that on certain types of exams, say essay tests, ones’ grade has as much to do with the prof you have as how much you know/how articulate you are does. If certain young women have an advantage due to higher language skills, they can also get nailed by profs who want answers parroted back as opposed to paraphrased and elaborated on. (And frankly, given the language skills of men in the past, I am puzzled as to why many young men seem to have trouble grasping their native language and being able to express themselves coherently in it. Something is broken somewhere in the system, but I don’t know enough about it to suggest a fix. Just that there needs to be one before we all drown in incoherence.)

    I think we need to promote academic success in *kids*, ALL kids, regardless of race or gender or economic factors. I’m just not sure how to do it.

  6. zuzu says:

    Are equivalent numbers of men and women applying, or is the greater number of women in colleges and universities a reflection of a disparity in applications?

    IOW, are the colleges trying to achieve gender parity from unequal applicant pools, or are the applicant pools equal but the quality different?

  7. wolfa says:


    Though Kenyon was a men’s college until 1969, more than 55 percent of our applicants are female, a proportion that is steadily increasing.


    Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants

    But it’s unclear whether they’re trying to replicate the percentage of applicants (so if 55% of applicants are women, 55% of the people they accept are women) or just keep the %age of women at somewhere below 60%.

  8. Anh says:

    What are you trying to say?

  9. Shannon W. says:

    Well, there have been attempts to put wedges between Asian American communities and other minority communities over AA. Basically, it’s the model minority myth, university version.

  10. anonymous says:

    There are Asian American quotas where there are twice as many qualified applicants for each of their “spots” as there are for other races for their “spots”.

  11. Deep Thought says:

    Perhaps as the father of four sons (full disclosure – we homeschool) I have an interesting perspective. Boys are being let down by the system.
    I saw it when I went to school and when I went to college as a non-traditional, it was worse. I remember seeing a Women’s Leadership Develpment Group office accross from the group offices containing groups to promote women in science, law, engineering, math, and the arts. All funded by the school and by outside moneies.
    Not a problem, until I realized how darn lost dome of the young men were. The college had not just standard academic advisors, but coaches and mentors – for young women. When I issued a proposal to start a mentoring program for men, you would have thought I was calling for a return to the Patriarchy ™! As an aside, the death threats from the computers in the Women’s Studies Computing Center were the best.
    Face it, there are teachers in the public school system who see boys as toxic. All the discussions about ‘inherent privilege’ ignores the individual boys who aren’t just “behind” the girls, but aren’t being taught the basic skills of education. The number of young men who are illiterate is growing every year – that isn’t a mark of privilege.

  12. Jill says:

    There are Asian American quotas where there are twice as many qualified applicants for each of their “spots” as there are for other races for their “spots”.

    Actually, no. Quotas in affirmative action programs have been illegal since the 80s, so that statement is just patently untrue.

  13. Shannon says:

    When I was in college (’92-’96), a friend of mine had a work study job in the admissions office and a really good relationship with her immediate supervisor. One day the supervisor admitted to her that if they actually held to the standards the school had set for admission, each incoming class would be over 2/3 female!

    In the 80s, we’d gotten a party school reputation, so they set some standards for admission — standards that were pretty low, actually, but high for a state school. This begs the question — if the male applicants weren’t even able to meet these minimal standards, what the heck were they doing there anyway?

    I’m sorry, Deep Thought, but I can’t blame public school teachers for their opinions about some male students. Personally, I think a lot of the blame rests on parents. If you can’t teach your child that school is a time for learning — not goofing off, not being disruptive, not agitating the teachers just for the fun of it — well, you’re not doing your job. It has an impact on not only the teachers who are trying to pound some knowledge into the kids’ heads, but on their fellow students, too.

    I begged and pleaded with my parents to send me to an all-girls’ school when I was in 10th grade. (They didn’t, we couldn’t afford it). I hated being in classes where the male students held the rest of us back, annoying the teachers with their poor behavior, being distracting, etc.

    Laurie, I’m absolutely for promoting academic achievement in both genders. Personally, I think same-sex education or homeschooling is the way to go, since boys and girls do learn differently (you note the female verbal advantage — it’s true). And I think that admissions, at least to state schools, should be absolutely merit-based. Letting in inferior candidates of any gender, for any reason, is unproductive at best.

  14. Deep THought says:

    Please, we didn’t fall off the turnip truck this morning. Yes, numerical quotas are illegal, as are allocating specific percentages. But the addition of “points for diversity” in a points-based admissions system is perfectly fine.
    College administrators and admissions boards have a very good idea of exactly how many students will apply, how many will pass their initial screen (the “no, not them” questions), etc. By simply controlling how many ‘points’ are allocated on the basis of race, gender, etc. they are capable of reaching results *just like* having a numerical or percentage quota.
    Don’t believe it? Well, just look at the number of statements along the lines of “we are dedicated to increasing African-American enrollment at least 5% over the next two years” followed by an increase of 5% within two years.
    After all, if allocating points based upon race, gender, etc. did not have a measurable, controllable, predicitable effect – it would be worthless as a tool of affirmative action, wouldn’t it?

  15. Shannon W. says:

    No, they’ve removed points, they’ve removed school scholarships, basically,we’re down to the good will of a bunch of white people to get any matter of redress. You’ve won- many black and Latino students are locked out of higher ed- what more do you want- for us to renounce reading books?
    Oh yea, it removes the amount of books for good white people!

    And Asian folk, don’t beleive in getting the crumbs of white supremacy, be in solidarity with us, so we can all get the full respect we need.

  16. Marian says:

    I believe that until recently, Michigan State (University of Michigan?) had a point system. You received 20 extra points for being black or Hispanic. Has that program been nixed by now?

  17. Deep THought says:

    The UofM undergrad points system was struck down, but hte UofM law school was able to keep its system in place. Essentially, as long as there is no “formal” quota system, its OK.
    Don’t get me wrong, admissions are complicated, but it is disingenuous to claim that there are no quotas.

  18. Jill says:

    Please, we didn’t fall off the turnip truck this morning. Yes, numerical quotas are illegal, as are allocating specific percentages. But the addition of “points for diversity” in a points-based admissions system is perfectly fine.

    Sorry, wrong again. The UofM case (Gratz v. Bollinger) struck down the points system as unconstitutional because it was too close to a quota system. The race-conscious admissions policy at the law school (evaluated in Grutter v. Bollinger), which simply looks at race as one factor among many others that the admissions committee evaluates and did not use a points system, was upheld.

    Look, I’m not saying that these systems are without fault. I’m not saying that race isn’t taken into account — of course it is. But if we’re going to argue, let’s at least get the facts straight.

  19. zuzu says:

    I went to UM Law. Back when Bollinger was the law school president (he went to Columbia after my first year, so you can see how long those cases were working their way through the system).

    Being a Michigander was given more weight (because of state funding formulas) than race or sex. As was your LSAT score. And your undergraduate school. And your GPA. And your legacy status.

    The fact that you were from an underrepresented group might be a deciding factor when looking at roughly equal candidates, or it might not. I was told, when I asked, that one of the things that helped push me over the threshold was that I was a woman — but what really caught their eye in the first place was my placement essay, in which I wrote about raccoons. Specifically, about a news story I wrote while employed before law school (that helped, too) about a trapped raccoon, an abandoned house, and a five-year-old child welfare scandal that had occurred at the abandoned house. Had I written something more prosaic, I might never have gotten in, despite my very high LSAT score (and because of my middling undergraduate grades from a middling state university).

    Another guy got in because he wrote about spending a year living off his gambling earnings. For other people, it was work experience or life experience.

  20. Deep THought says:

    Hey, I’m a wolverine, myself. Love the school.
    SInce I am being unclear, the point I am trying to make is – we keep looking at affirmative action in the court system and virtually every time, its being struck down as a form of quota system.

    Shannon, my wife went to all-girls schools k-12 and then went to Smith. I am all for separated learning; of course, there are virtually no all-male schools left! Men and women learn differently, especially at a young age. Current public education is geared toward females. Is this less of a problem than when it was geared toward males? I don’t think so. Indeed, I am troubled by the number of times I have heard (not here – in person) that the problem is boys, not how the education system works. Indeed, Shannon points to males as disruptive and having poor behavior and stating educators are justified in having a poor opinion of males.
    If we were to go back to 1920 when educators viewed females as ‘shrinking, non-assertive and, thus, incapable of higher learning” would that be a problem with women, or with the attitudes of the educators? How is having a bad opinion of a person or group of persons based on gender *ever* acceptable?
    Based on the arguments I’ve had with public educators, its acceptable when you are a White Male.
    No, I don’t think this is the default of public schools. But it can feel like it some days. Look, if Asians were performing as men are, how many plans to help them would exist? Women are currently the majority of inbound college students, a majority of graduates, a majority of grad students, a majority of grad degree recipients, etc., etc., etc. and there are still no less than 12 programs to increase the representation and performance of women at the major college nearest my home. Indeed, the fact that men are still a majority of engineers is seen as a *problem* that needs to be corrected by increasing the representation of women in the field! Where are the programs to increase the presence of men in Literature or History departments? There is a severe “gender imbalance” in those fields; why isn’t it being corrected?

  21. Dianne says:

    White men get coddled and treated as superior from friggin birth on. They get better treatment from teachers starting in nursery school and continuing throughout life. If white boys can’t make the grades or standardized test scores to get into college, it’s because they’re STUPID and shouldn’t be admitted. Asking for affirmative action when you’ve benefited from that much prejudice for 18 years already just adds whiny to stupid.

  22. Lauren says:

    Current public education is geared toward females.


  23. james says:

    I don’t see more women than men getting into higher education as much of a problem. In the UK I’ve see it predicted that a girl born in 2000 will have 50% more chance of getting into university than a boy, so these going to be very big differences in life chances quite soon (with no prospect of “positive discrimination” being used, as it is basically illegal here). But I can’t see how it is morally justifiable to try to balance things out.

    I also want to flag the very dubious grounds being used to reject girls brought up in the article. There’s the preservation of social life on campus (people being able to find “dance partners for the winter formal”) and the fear that men and women applicants will be both put off going to the college if there are too many women. That seems really thin grounds for discrimination, it’s essentially that students exist to serve the university and not the other way around.

  24. palamedes says:

    Lauren Says:
    March 26th, 2006 at 9:39 am
    Current public education is geared toward females.


    (The following is based on personal experience and somewhat off the cuff, and thus colored accordingly. Given that we’re all individuals with our own life experiences, your mileage may vary. My skill set doesn’t include pedagogy, so this comes from my private set of experiences and opinions, so take what follows for what its worth.)

    One arena that gets discussed in my locale regarding differences in learning capabilities for boys versus girls, at least at a young age, is, for lack of a better word, fidgetiness on the part of boys.

    Young boys allegedly have a stronger need than girls for large body movement, or so I got told a lot at the public school district where my daughter went from kindergarten through sixth grade. So, at her elementary school, they had (and still have) not only lunch recess, but a couple of extra mini-recess periods of about 10-20 minutes each, for blowing off steam. And the explanation I usually received, from both teachers and volunteer parents, was that it seemed to help the boys focus more in class.

    The problem is that this kind of attitude seems to me to be more of an exception than the rule.

    My personal experiences, and from watching my daughter’s cohort travel together from Kindergarten through sixth grade, lead to my opinions…

    Interpretation versus reaction really, really matters. I think girls and young women are doing better in school these days because, in large part, a majority of people aren’t saying anymore, “Oh, well, that’s how it is,” where women and achievement are concerned. They figured out what to do about it and sometimes stumbled, sometimes strode their way into converting the average female’s core personality traits into advantages that could be translated into achievements.

    I think we truly fail at two distinct levels when it comes to men and achievement. The first is that we don’t want to accurately interpret how men are, both because it means we have to deal with the typically more physically aggressive nature of males, and because we can’t separate males as individuals from the worst males in our society.

    For reasons I don’t completely understand (having only been blessed with a daughter), we tend to give a lot of young males a pass when it comes to responsibility.

    Women are typically looked upon to provide comfort, and men are typically looked upon to provide discipline, in a family.

    My personal experience is that many men don’t often understand what “discipline” means. They think it means swatting a butt (or worse) when their kid does wrong, but it also means teaching self-discipline, and where this is most important for males is where anger and violence is concerned. I tend to believe that fathers and related men (uncles, grandfathers, what have you…) are most important for young males in that they teach that, yes, you have a violent nature; yes, it can be very powerful; no, it is not all that makes you you; here is what is acceptable and how you can control it.

    It’s not that women can’t be violent, but that, for better or worse, they cannot accept the violence at the core of most men, fear it, or simply aren’t acceptable teachers to young men regarding this core feature of their nature. And, to be frank, nurturing is more pleasant than discipline. I hate having to ban my daughter from stuff she likes to do when she does wrong – it’s much more fun to walk a trail, watch a movie or go out to lunch together on a weekend day and talk father-daughter stuff.

    So we let a lot of young men slide. Those that make it well in life either stumble their way into self-discipline of a sort, or have been given a sense of it through people they respect. Some mothers can install that sense of self-discipline, but my personal experience is that, as a single parent with a largely absent ex-wife in the situation, I work very hard to make sure adult female role models that I trust, especially now, as my daughter becomes a teenager, are a regular part of her life. It’s not that I can’t be a good father or a good parent, but for better or worse, there are differences between males and females and our young ones get told it by society, know it, and want to know those differences so they can both fit in and be distinctly what their gender says they are, even if only at a marginal level, supplanted by their individual personality. Even teens that know they are dramatically outside the mainstream hunger for those mentors that can provide what they need – acceptance (of which I consider nurturing a means toward that end) and self-discipline.

    The second major problem is that we accept the idea all too readily that “all men are pigs,” and that the men that act the most like this represent all men. The more we accept this idea, the more we let males in general off the hook. The more we don’t expect men to meet certain standards of self-discipline in their lives, the more we give them license to be unable to catch up to women, both in terms of achievements and in terms of responsibility/maturity, and for many to blame women for their problems and act accordingly.

    Now, that doesn’t mean we should pretend that males don’t have an aggressive nature. That, I think, is at core where we fail men in this society. It’s too easy to pretend that it doesn’t exist, and instead of teaching the means to redirect it into acceptable ends, we demand that it never be on display.

    And thus, we get males that take the usual hard knocks we all, regardless of gender, must suffer – the goals we couldn’t achieve, the disappointments in potential relationships, the possibilities we have to let go by, possibly forever – and thus have rage that they’re not allowed to acknowledge, let alone channel into something useful instead of destructive.

    Add to this the nature of men to believe that their masculinity is something that can be taken from them, regardless of their possessing a penis, and you have rage that gets channeled into, typically, physical violence, often against women, which aggravates the fear of it, which recycles the whole process again.

    And while social liberals tend to want to ignore a male’s aggressive nature, social conservatives take things a step further and seem to believe that such a nature confirms male superiority over women, which in it’s own way also gives men a free pass, but with even worse consequences for society in general and women in particular.

    Do I have answers to all of this? A few, but hardly a full solution. The obvious answers are to commit to discerning what works best to help males achieve and provide them with the support structure they need, and to ensure that they receive a valid sense of self-discipline in their lives –if not through their families, than by other means.

    Beyond that, though, I’m open to ideas.

  25. Marian says:

    Sorry, wrong again. The UofM case (Gratz v. Bollinger) struck down the points system as unconstitutional because it was too close to a quota system. The race-conscious admissions policy at the law school (evaluated in Grutter v. Bollinger), which simply looks at race as one factor among many others that the admissions committee evaluates and did not use a points system, was upheld.

    Look, I’m not saying that these systems are without fault. I’m not saying that race isn’t taken into account — of course it is. But if we’re going to argue, let’s at least get the facts straight.

    Good to know about Michigan. Admittedly my sources were biased–conservative groups who call it “Affirmative Action University.” I had no idea it had been struck down!! Learn something new every day.

  26. Darin says:


    Your arguments sound eerily similar to those used by “angry white males” lamenting how much “better” they have to be to get jobs over less qualified minorities.

    Funny how you don’t recognize the hypocrisy. But typical.

  27. Darin says:

    You know, instead of going on about how unfair it is to hold female applicants to higher standards, why don’t you stop and think about what’s really going on?

    The data show that the gender disparity in college enrollment is clearly linked to economic class. (In other words, if a male comes from a lower economic level, he is less likely to attend college, while at middle- to upper-level incomes, the gender ratio is almost 50/50.)

    This shows that the issue is more about the interaction between gender and economics then about gender alone. Of course, you like to see it through the prism of gender alone.

    Basically, the market for higher education is becoming saturated, and among lower-income families, the girls are more likely to see the advantages of college than the boys, who don’t see that it’s in their interest and don’t see why they should care. This is what is accounting for the gender gap.

  28. tiffany says:

    a nitpicky thing:

    Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods tend to have better schools because property taxes there are higher and so their schools are better funded.

    Property tax rates are actually lower in those districts, but because the property is worth so much more, those districts are able to raise more money with a lower rate. And the lower rates make those districts even more attractive.

    Darin your argument is smoke and mirrors, dude. The issue here is applicants: who gets chosen and why.

    Lower-class men don’t go to college because they. do. not. apply. to. college. Men can earn a decent-enough living with a high school diploma, and in poorer families, they feel the pressure to earn now rather than go to college.

  29. Jill says:

    Thanks Tiffany. That’s basically what I meant, just phrased it very poorly. It’s a really important distinction, though.

  30. zuzu says:

    Property tax rates are actually lower in those districts, but because the property is worth so much more, those districts are able to raise more money with a lower rate. And the lower rates make those districts even more attractive.

    Augh! The mil rate!

    Sorry. Had a flashback there to working as a local-news reporter. We had to do math twice a year — once at election time, and once when the Grand List came out and we had to figure out the tax rates and the mil rate. If you’ve ever seen a group of reporters trying to split a lunch check, you’ll have an idea of how traumatizing this was for us.

    Lower-class men don’t go to college because they. do. not. apply. to. college. Men can earn a decent-enough living with a high school diploma, and in poorer families, they feel the pressure to earn now rather than go to college.

    My ex-BIL, a working-class guy from Queens, caught hell from his father, an HVAC guy, for applying to college. He joined the Navy in part to get away from his father’s digs about “lazy school.”

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