What's Fair?

Life isn’t fair. My mother frequently reminded me of this fact while I was growing up. There was one particular event in high school that seemed dramatically unfair to me, so much so that I marched my usually timid, compliant self right up to the principal and gave him a piece of my mind. It all started with graduation preparations. My high school did it oddly in a number of ways, I think. They decided not to have a valedictorian, in order not to hurt the feelings of everyone who wasn’t valedictorian. To determine who would speak at graduation, the students in the academic top ten percent were invited to write a speech and audition if they were interested. That amounted to approximately thirty students, two of which were boys(!). We were told that our speeches should be well polished and our presentation practiced, and a panel of teachers and parents would rate each one on a rubric. The highest scoring students would be chosen to speak. I worked hard on my speech and practiced it several times. I auditioned my speech and watched the other students give theirs. There were several good ones, and a few clearly not good ones. Among the not-so-good was that of the one boy of the two who had chosen to audition. The next day when the four chosen speakers were announced, the boy was one of them. Although they had made a point that the speeches had to be well-refined to score points and to be considered, the boy was given another chance and asked to rewrite his speech. It was very clear to me that he was chosen because he was a boy, in spite of and not because of his speech; they didn’t want four girls and zero boys speaking at graduation.

I spoke with a number of teachers who had been on the panel. Most kind of squirmed and wouldn’t answer my questions. One basically admitted that it was indeed true, that they had chosen the boy because he was a boy. I was furious that I and other girls who had worked harder on our speeches and done a better job were passed over so they could have a token boy on the roster of speakers. That was when I spoke my mind to the principal, who flatly denied that the school would do anything of the sort, and was so sorry I felt that way.

From my current perspective I can appreciate that they would want both sexes represented among the speakers. It was very likely a difficult decision to make. At the time I was infuriated that they would choose that boy, who was unprepared and delivered poorly, over many more qualified girls. What would be most “fair” in this situation? What they did, or letting the best speakers be chosen regardless of where gender lines fell? I’ve reflected on that experience later as I think about things like affirmative action and other quota policies. I also wonder why the top of the class was so dramatically skewed to girls. The ratio of girls to boys in college is growing and they have outnumbered boys for a while now. This web articlestates that the college gender gap is reversing, rather than simply being eliminated, and gives some theories as to why, for anyone interested. This talk by Pres. Hinckley also references the trend, although I don’t personally see it to be as problematic as he does. Part of me thinks it’s about time we women get ahead of the game.

Regarding my earlier experience, my initial impulse is that it seems most fair to simply give the most qualified person the job, or the calling, or admittance to the school, or the chance to speak. But then I consider that the opportunities to develop qualifications are certainly not fairly meted out, so perhaps some compensation for that is worthwhile. What I do know is it that would have felt fairer to me back in high school if we had not had some sort of reverse affirmative action, and simply given out the spots to the best speakers.

Artwork: A Pause For Thought
Pierre Auguste Cot


  1. Very interesting, Amy. I can see why you would have been so upset by this. I’m sure I would have been too if I were in your shoes.

    But from an outside perspective, I would have done the same as those teachers did. I think it’s important that leadership reflect the constituency (to some degree). Even if that means that certain populations have to be even more outstanding to get into that position of leadership.

    Bottom line for me: I believe in affirmative action, whether it means giving girls or boys, whites or blacks, an extra boost once in a while. Because diversity is important to me, maybe even more important than ‘fairness’.

    (I will say though that I’m more uncomfortable with it in this context, since it’s not like the boys were economically, socially, or educationally disadvantaged compared to the girls.)

  2. I can see a resonable case being made both for picking a boy and for making selections based entirely on merit. But it does seem that if the high school wanted at least one boy, they should have been up-front about the real criteria for selection from the outset, perhaps dividing the competition by gender and selecting two girls and two boys as winners. The way they actually went about it seems underhanded to me.

  3. Ideally, affirmative action requires that both candidates be equally qualified, which doesn’t sound like the case here. If affirmative action is used to prop up incompetent/unqualified individuals, minority candidates lose in the long run.

    Of course, that’s in the ideal world. In the real world, things are much more complicated, and I’m generally sympathetic to the idea that the leadership should represent the demographics of the population. In any event, it’s important to make the criteria and selection process clear at the very beginning, as Eve said.

  4. I’m less upset by an individual getting an undeserved opportunity because of their race or gender than by the inevitable consequence of this: an individual being denied a deserved opportunity because of their race or gender. The reason the fourth best girl didn’t get the opportunity she deserved based on her performance within the stipulated rules was because she wasn’t a boy.

    I recognize the value of diversity and I do think that truly underprivileged individuals should be given a boost, but I don’t think that any individual should be denied opportunities for the sake of boosting a category of individuals that includes some privileged and some underprivileged individuals. Each individual has the right to be treated fairly, regardless of their race or gender. To me, the cost of violating that right outweighs the possible benefits.

    Besides, when you favor a category of individuals that includes privileged individuals, the underprivileged within that group still get left behind. Favoring a middle class suburban black kid doesn’t help the poor inner city black kid get out of poverty.


    The fact that only two boys tried out doesn’t mean that only two boys were in the top ten percent of the class, does it? It could just mean that boys were much less likely to want to give a graduation speech, which is something I would expect.

  5. Caroline, I think I agree with you-I like to see “the leadership reflect the constituency” and demographics of schools or workplaces representative of local demographics.

    Eve and ECS, you’ve articulated for me part of why the incident was so upsetting. They claimed to be doing something other than what they were. To be fair to them, I think the circumstances turned out to be extraordinary that year. Who could have predicted they would have no good male speakers from which to choose?

    Tom, there were indeed only two boys in the top percentage. I could be off on whether it was the top five percent or top ten percent, but either way, it was almost all girls at the top that year at my particular school. I was privy to the list of invitees. Only one boy of the two tried out. Most unusual, I’m sure.

  6. I graduated from high school about ten years ago. Out of the top ten students in my class, only three were boys and the rest were girls. This was at a fairly large school on the east coast. My school that I had attended before moving to that area was in a lower economic area of California with a more diverse population. That school also had a majority of the top ten percent of the class as girls. The valedictorian and both runners-up (salutatorian?) were girls. I’ve seen that often in schools these days, so it doesn’t seem that unusual to me. Even in my own family, my sister and I were the only kids who made the honor roll, top of the class, etc. My three brothers were smart, but didn’t get as good of grades. Interesting… (sorry for the threadjack)

  7. Caroline,

    The classic counter example is the surgeon situation. Would you rather have a mediocre affirmative action doctor working on you or would you rather have the best (regardless of gender, race, etc.)? Same with an engineer designing the safety of a bridge, car, building or nuclear facility.

    I am a white, male, engineer. I care not one whit whether my co-workers are non-white or non-male. As a business resource, I care not whether they were economically, socially or educationally disadvantaged. The ONLY thing I care about is their current competence. Don’t make me accept less than excellence.

  8. As the father of two pre-teen boys I am acutely aware of the gender gap in scholastic performance. My kid’s elementary school gives out monthly good citizenship awards. When I look at the names in the school newsletter the ratio of girls to boys is about 5 to 1; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a list that had the same number of boys as girls, let alone more. At my son’s orchestra concert they had perhaps a dozen student narrators introduce the pieces, only two were boys.

    Over the last 5 years I’ve gone to various high school graduations of nieces and nephews and the ratio of boys and girls in valedictorian awards is about the same. Last June at my HS alma mater there were 10 valedictorians, one was a boy.

    I attended our town council meeting last week when they awarded twelve scholarships to outstanding seniors from our local HS, ten of them were girls.

    The same disparity is even worse for the adult faculty represented in the school my children attend. Over the last seven years there has been one year where there was one male teacher on campus, his contract was not renewed. Other than that, the principal and every teacher on campus is female. The only male presence has been janitors.

    Would I be wrong to think that if the genders were reversed that thinking people would describe it as a crisis that must be addressed? And I do think that it is a crisis, not just because the numbers are so skewed, but because those numbers have a profound effect on how younger boys just starting out will behave.

    If academic success becomes perceived as a girl thing even more boys will shun it, boys who under different circumstances would have excelled in school. And yes, I know that is an immature reaction, but it is a very real reaction for a boy finding his way in the world. From the time of his birth the most important person in a boy’s life has been his mother, a woman. As he grows he naturally tries to break away from what he perceives as female dominance in order to understand who he is and what his place in the world should be. If academic success becomes just another female thing to break away from then that boy loses, and our society loses as well.

  9. Anon, If I were a parent of boys, I would be concerned as well. There is a clear disparity in achievement between boys and girls in primary schooling. As far as I know, though, men are still ahead in the general professional world as far as salaries and top jobs.

    I have my own theories for why this is happening in the school systems, but perhaps that’s a flame war to start in a future post.

  10. AmyB, I agree that men still appear ahead in salaries and top jobs. But salaries and top jobs reflect the current reality of the job market which is still weighted by the presence of older men who were educated in a different world. I have no doubt that the things I’m troubled by will show up in these statistics, although not completely for several decades, and by then we will have a whole generation of our own lost boys.

  11. Anon, that’s an excellent point. I do think that the current state of education is very broken in many ways, and right now particularly damaging to boys. From my perspective it seems that generally many workplaces are not a female friendly, and primary schools are not as male friendly. More balance in masculine and feminine type values in both places would work toward the benefit of all, IMO.

  12. AmyB, I saw a news story last night that added some information to my comments. They said that if current trends hold, by 2016 70% of undergraduate college students will be female. That’s only nine years away.

    Several other experts were interviewed concerning why this is true, all said that there was no good data or explanation currently available. I did notice that all of the experts were female. I certainly don’t believe that a woman can’t understand a male problem, but I do think that women bring some definite biases with them when considering this topic, biases I have noticed when trying to discuss it on various blogs.

    Many women seem to see this as a character flaw in men, something which can be remedied with training and education, or with a good dose of common sense and hard work. I see it as much more complicated, involving male identity and a masculine need to break away from the dominant female of his early life. I don’t see that as something easily changed with classes or seminars.

  13. That report is interesting and disturbing, Anon. I personally don’t see this issue as a character flaw in men/boys, (which is one reason why I think Pres. Hinckley’s exhortations were a little off base). I think that one contributing factor is that a majority of teachers are female. I think there is enough hard science to support the fact that in general males and female brains function a little differently, and may learn in different ways. Female teachers are more likely to teach with a bias toward female-type learning. This may or may not be a problem for any given individual, but when millions of people are involved it begins to have a statistical effect. That is just one factor among many.

    This is an interesting topic that merits plenty of attention. Perhaps you’d be interested in submitting a guest post?

  14. AmyB, thanks for taking the time to respond to my comments. It was nice to converse with someone about something that concerns me. A guest post? I don’t know if I have anything more to say that I haven’t already said, but I’ll think about it more and see where it leads me.

  15. Anon, thanks for your comments. You’ve brought up some interesting points and given me a lot of food for thought. You may see more from me on this subject in the future.

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