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  • The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men
  • Rebecca Ropers-Huilman and Kaaren Williamsen
Linda J. Sax. The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. 352 pp. Hardcover: $40.00. ISBN-13: 978-0787965754.

In The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men, Linda Sax offers an in-depth analysis of the ways in which men and women experience and are affected by higher education. Emphasizing the need to focus on which types of students benefit from which college experiences, Sax presents her investigation of how women and men: (a) differ when they enter college currently and over time; (b) experience a contraction or expansion of gender differences in their college years; and (c) are affected (whether similarly or differently) by their collegiate experiences.

Sax conducts this investigation through the use of two Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) databases, the Freshman Survey and the College Student Survey, both well-regarded instruments in higher education research communities.

Sax argues that our shared wisdom about college student development and engagement looks at students “in the aggregate” and that we have much less understanding about how students experience college based upon important differences such as gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. This, she contends, limits our knowledge base and decreases the likelihood that specific interventions will be successful. In three of her chapters, “Personality and Identity,” “Political and Social Values,” and “Academic Outcomes” she analyzes data for each area and finds factors that are significant for men only, women only, and for both men and women.

For example, she finds that feeling supported by faculty members is the most important college factor for both men and women in their quest to develop a meaningful philosophy of life. She also found that, for women, the time spent commuting to and from class was also an important factor. She speculates that this travel time gave women the opportunity for reflection. Men were more likely to develop a philosophy of life if they were paying for college with money that they earned while in college, as opposed to paying by student loans. Sax wonders if the men who incur a great deal of debt worry more about getting a well-paying job after college than creating a meaningful philosophy of life.

In the last chapter, Sax highlights areas where she found significant differences for men and women and offers practical advice for creating campus programs and initiatives to take these differences into account. For example, Sax considered financial concerns and student-faculty interaction. Since women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are entering college at higher rates than men, it should be of no surprise that Sax found that women students in aggregate are more concerned about their financial circumstances.

There are other, more surprising findings, including outcomes of student-faculty interactions. [End Page 554] For male students, spending more time with faculty correlated with having less traditional beliefs about gender roles, whereas for women, the opposite was true. Sax calls on the entire campus community to recognize the importance of understanding how different students experience college differently.

While we found this book useful in a variety of ways, we also were aware of its limitations. First, there was little attempt to consider the ways in which gender is shaped by the multiplicative (rather than additive) identities that each of us possess. Scholarship from both the field of higher education and other fields (T. Elon Dancy & M. Christopher Brown, 2008; Michael Cuyjet, 2006; Ana Martínez Aléman, 2000; Patrick Dilley, 2002; Laura Rendón, 2008, Patricia Williams, 1992; Adrien Wing, 2003, for example) has critiqued a unilateral approach to studying groups, suggesting that this approach tends to reify the majority (White middle-class heterosexual) experience in ways that may or may not reflect the lived realities of those who do not neatly fit that category. We wonder, even with the cautions offered in the book, how this text will be read and used.

Our second critique addresses how the concept of gender was constructed in this text. Gender theory has long suggested that, especially since...


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