Contradicting both sides in the long-running debate on whether boys or girls have it better in America, the most comprehensive examination of the overall well-being of male and female children has found that the sexes are faring about equally.
Although boys have the advantage in some areas and girls score better in others, they are doing about the same in a broad array of measures assessing essential dimensions of life, such as health, safety, economics and education, the researchers found.
"If you're on one side or the other of the gender-wars debate, you could pick a specific indicator to buttress your case," said Kenneth C. Land, a professor of demographic studies and sociology at Duke University, senior author of the study. "But if we take a step back a little and look at what the data say overall, we find that the two genders have tracked pretty closely."
The study drew immediate criticism from advocates and researchers on both sides, with many saying it glossed over crucial gaps between the sexes or used criteria that biased the results. But several experts praised the work, saying the findings could bridge the often bitter, polarized debate that occurs whenever the sexes are compared.
"This takes a more balanced view and shows that overall, it's not easier to be a boy in our society than it is to be a girl -- or vice versa," said Dalton Conley, director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University. "We need to have a more fruitful discussion about the specific risks for each gender group, not a debate where each group is talking past each other."
The findings come amid an intense debate sparked by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers over math and science abilities of men and women. The study does not address that issue directly, although the researchers note that the edge boys tend to have on math tests is very small.
For the study, Land and his colleagues gathered data from a variety of large, ongoing studies, including federal health surveys, the census, crime statistics, government economic indicators and academic research projects, to track the progress of boys and girls from childhood through their early twenties between 1985 and 2001. The researchers combined 28 variables to create an Index of Child Well-Being, covering seven broad areas: health, safety, economic status, educational achievement, emotional and spiritual well-being, and social relationships.
The researchers did find differences between the sexes. For example, boys are more likely to commit crimes and be the victims of crime, but they tend to relocate less often and are less likely to be born underweight. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide but are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. Girls also score higher on reading tests and are more likely to graduate from high school and college.
Overall, the well-being of both girls and boys has improved at about the same rate and has tended to track in the same direction, the researchers concluded in a paper being published today in the journal Social Indicators Research. The study was funded by the Foundation for Child Development, a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research foundation in New York.
The findings drew immediate criticism from some feminist groups and scholars.
"This reminds me of that saying, 'lies, damn lies and statistics," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "There's no question that boys and girls have disadvantages in different ways, but the variables they have chosen seem designed to show girls are doing better."
But researchers who have argued that boys are worse off than girls welcomed the findings.
"There were dozens of books claiming all sorts of misfortunes for girls," said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. "This challenges the myth of the disadvantaged, short-changed girl."
David Sadker, a professor in the school of education at American University, said the study did not look at specific groups that are prone to problems, such as minorities.
"On a positive side, I think it's good to try to get beyond polemics and politics, and bring some sense of objectively to the issue, which I think they tried to do," Sadker said. "On the other side, this is an average, and I think the average covers up differences -- class and race differences. And this doesn't deal with the issue of sexual harassment."
He added: "We all know the guys are going on to make more money."