Who Failed Our Boys? Us or The System?

By Maiah Cooper

Male underachievement and marginalisation have been a topic of discussion for over twenty years, however, the issue is more prevalent than ever. If discussions are continuously occurring and policies are being implemented, why does the issue persist? 

Through research it is evident that the discussions surrounding males’ performance within the education system has been the least bit critical as the constant interplay between gendered systems, and socio-political and economic factors are neglected. Consequently, the problem is misdiagnosed and worsens over time. Boys and men continue to achieve highly in the academic sphere but it is their under-participation rather than their underachievement that is the problem.  Now we must analyse why the boys and men who once dominated the education system have begun to view it as obsolete.

However, before the topic of male under-participation is succinctly elaborated on, it should be made abundantly clear that this issue is manifold and does not have a singular cause or solution.

To first understand the decrease in participation one must understand the depth of the binary gender system. No different to any other society, within the Caribbean context there is a division of labour along gender lines that emerges through gendered socialisation.  As boys and girls navigate each agent of socialisation they are taught that there is a dichotomy between them that are identified through gendered behaviours, attitudes and material items. While girls are occupied learning how to be docile nurturers their male counterparts are becoming acquainted with their ‘duty’ of being tough and earning a living.

As the Caribbean experienced its own process of industrialisation in the early 20th century, males dominated the schooling system as it was strictly seen as a means of upward social mobility. This mobility perfectly aligned with the male’s role of being a breadwinner. Concurrently, femaleness was aligned with nurturing roles that centred around the home and family which in turn resulted in their lack of participation in education. Womanhood was not only parallel with the household on an intrapersonal level but also a structural one as legislation restricted their access to the fundamental human right of education 

A pertinent factor to note is how the binary gender system remained intact even though women started to enter the education system during the mid-20th century. As women released themselves from the restraining concepts of femininity they began to not only influx the education system but areas that were previously perceived as being masculine-such as business, law and science. Interestingly, the same characteristics of femininity and masculinity that aligned girls with domestic activities and boys with external ones caused girls to propel and boys to under-participate. 

The aspect of school that requires students to be obedient, attentive and submissive directly corresponds with the imparted knowledge of female identity and socialisation. Boys were already at a disadvantage in that realm but things continued to get progressively worse as girls were given different treatment. Generally, boys are treated harsher due to the notions of them being tough, lacking emotions and in need of less defence. Simultaneously, the lack of funding and resources within the teaching profession caused male teachers to leave for higher-paying jobs or avoid the profession entirely. This resulted in the perception of the school system shifting from being a means of obtaining one’s role in life to its feminisation or as boys love to say “dais gyul ting.”

Now that school does not directly correlate with the male identity and masculinity, the questions of where they are going and what they are doing arise. The expansion of the informal sector has facilitated the fulfilment of the breadwinner role while  affording men the opportunity to maintain their masculinity. A significant number of jobs within the informal sector (legal and illegal) are identified as ‘male-oriented’ as they are highly paid, involve skill and labour and are usually high risk. Within this sector, men are more capable of being in control of both their income and identity. Some of the powerful and lucrative roles within the informal sector are difficult for women to obtain so the dominating jobs remain in the hands of men. Also, certain avenues within the informal sector endanger women more than men so they do not view it as a viable option. 

In addendum, when socio-political and economic considerations come into play we realise the prevalence of the problem. Depending on your privilege this topic may seem far fetched or even mythical since the boys and men in your scope of reality are succeeding and attending school at a high rate. Nonetheless, we must always be conscious of the fact that our reality does not dispute the reality of another. In lower-class communities, more than any other strata, boys are constantly reminded that they ‘must make it’, not only for themselves but for their family, community and what success represents. Ironically, Trinidad and Tobago’s education system reveals, more than other Caribbean countries, that the playing field is in fact not equal and even though education is largely funded by the Government the reality of violence, poverty and toxic environments remain. 

How can I focus on school when I’m the oldest sibling and ‘not enough money making’? How to make school my priority when I can’t afford to reach? Why should I focus on school when the men I know never completed school but are still revered and wealthy? These are the sort of thoughts that cross many boys’ and men’s minds. This creates internal and external conflict as they navigate their burdens, goals, expectations and identity. Additionally, we must not overlook the limitations attached to residing in particular areas, attending schools with limited resources and the intersectionality of race and sexuality. 

So, now that we are aware of some of the issues, are we going to slap on another one size fits all action plan that does nothing but perpetuates the problem? It is clear that the education system alone is not the only thing failing our boys but every socialising institution. This means that by adding a few workshops and more male teachers to schools we will not fix the problem. 

We need to alter our expectations of men and boys, redefine masculinity and end the juxtaposition of femininity and masculinity. Spaces that facilitate and promote self-discovery, interrogation and love for boys and men are needed now more than ever. Gone are the days where we allow the policing of people’s individuality and personhood under the guise of socialisation and cultural norms. We either take it upon ourselves to start the process and instil change or continue to fail our boys and men. 


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Barriteau , E. (2003). Requiem for The Male Marginalisation Thesis in The Caribbean: Death a Non-Theory. In: E. Barriteau, ed. Confronting Power, Theorising Gender: Interdisciplinary Perspectives in The Caribbean. Kingston: The University of The West Indies Press.

Chevannes , B. (1999). What We Sow and What We Reap: Violence and The Construction of Male Identity. Current Issues in Comparative Education.

Figueroa, M. (2007). Under-achieving Caribbean Boys: Marginalisation or Gender Privileging. In: Commonwealth Education Partnerships . s.l.:Nexus Strategic Partnerships , pp. 23-25.