Explaining Gender Inequality in Education – In School Factors

labelling, subcultures, the feminisation of teaching, coursework and boys’ overconfidence are all possible reasons.

Last Updated on May 17, 2023 by Karl Thompson

In-school factors which may explain the gender gap in education include labelling, laddish subcultures and the feminisation of teaching. 

Teacher Labelling

Swann and Graddol (1994) found that teachers tend to see boys as unruly and disruptive and are more likely to spend time telling them off than helping them with schoolwork. Teachers have lower expectations of boys and so are less inclined to push them hard to achieve high standards. Because of their disruptive behaviour they are more likely to be excluded. Four out of five permanent exclusions are boys. With Ladette culture this may be changing (Jackson, 2006)

John Abraham (1986) asked teachers to describe a typical boy and a typical girl – The typical boy was described as not particularly bright, likes a laugh and always attention seeking, often by messing around. The typical girl is bright, well –behaved and hard working, being quiet and timid. As a result he found that boys were told off much more easily than girls.

Subcultures and ‘Laddishness’

Working class boys especially tend to form anti-school subcultures. Paul Willis (1977) found this with his research with the lads, Tony Sewell (1997) argues that there is a black –anti school masculinity and Diane Reay et al (2003) found that boys felt they had little control over their educational learning and so seek power through other negative strategies.

Unlike the anti-social subculture discovered by Paul Willis, some researchers such as Abrahams (1988) and Mirza (1992) have found evidence of pro-school female subcultures who actively encourage each other to study.

Carolyn Jackson (2006) – Found that laddish behaviour had important benefits – it made students seam cool and thus popular. She also argued that it was a response to the fear of failure – it made students seam unbothered about failing, so if they did FAIL they would not look bad. Furthermore, if lads and ladettes did well, they would be labelled as a genius – doing well with apparently no effort

Frosh and Phoenix – Mainly focus group interviews but some individual interviews Sample of 245 boys and 27girls in 12 schools Young Masculinities (2000) Found that few boys were able to be both popular and academically successful Conscientious boys who tried hard at school were often labelled as feminine or gay.

The Feminisation of teaching

There are more female than male teachers, especially in primary school where only 15% of teachers are male.

In line with women increasingly going into more professional careers, secondary schooling has also seen a rise in female teachers. This means that girls increasingly have positive role models while boys may fail to identify with female teachers.

One consequence of there being fewer male teachers working in primary schools is that the curriculum, teaching styles and means of assessment, are more appropriate to the learning styles of girls. Consequently government strategies of teacher recruitment now suggest that pupils will benefit from ‘gender-matching’ with teachers.

Some primary schools do not have any male staff members at all, and this can be especially problematic for boys with learning difficulties who tend to respond better to male staff.

The introduction of coursework

Coursework was introduced with the 1988 Education Act and this is precisely when girls started to outperform boys in education. Coursework may benefit girls in education because they are better organised and more likely to do work outside of lessons.

Boys’ overconfidence

Michael Barber (1996) showed that boys overestimate their ability, and girls underestimate theirs. Francis research in 3 London schools (1998-9) found that some boys thought it would be easy to do well in exams without having to put much effort in. When they fail they tend to blame the teacher or their own lack of effort, not ability and feel undervalued.

However, there is a counter argument to this (1). Boys with the same ability as girls tend to have better exam performance in specifically maths, and it seems that girls’ lack of confidence in what they perceive to be technically demanding subjects results in them being less likely to choose STEM subjects and perform less well than their intellectual peers in maths.

Limitations of in school factors in explaining differences in educational achievement

The introduction of coursework in 1988 seams to have had a major impact on girl’s surging ahead of boys because girls suddenly surged ahead at this time

Research by Skelton et al found that the Feminisation of teaching does not have a negative impact on educational performance of boys. They found that most pupils and teachers reported that matching pupils and teachers by gender did not significantly affect pupils’ educational experiences. Sixty-five per cent of children rejected the idea that the gender of the teacher mattered, with no major differences between girls and boys. The majority of pupils also believed that the behaviour of male and female teachers in the classroom was generally very similar in terms of fairness, encouragement and discipline.

Out of school factors must also play a role – boys learn to be ‘typical boys’ at home first of all and then their peers just reinforce this.

Don’t exaggerate the extent of male underachievement – boys are still improving in education and are now catching up with girls once more.


This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology and is one of the major topics within the sociology of education module.

In-school factors are usually contrasted to Home based factors which explain gender differences in educational achievement.

Another closely related topic within education is that of the relationship between education and gender identity.


(1) (1) Chiara Cavaglia, Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, and Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela (2020) Gender, achievement, and subject choice in English education

(2) Gender Trust: Gender Inequality in the British Education System

3 thoughts on “Explaining Gender Inequality in Education – In School Factors”

  1. The problem of the male crisis has “not been looked at” in terms of much differential treatment that increases as we go down the socioeconomic ladder and more time in those environments. If we look in those areas, we cannot help but see how the numbers of Male problems diminish greatly as we go up the socioeconomic ladder. Even in higher socioeconomic areas, those Males are also falling behind their female peers. As we go down the socioeconomic ladder, the numbers increase greatly. We need to look at “much differential treatment of boys and girls beginning from infancy through adulthood. It is amazing to me that such differential treatment has not been looked at by the researchers. I imagine there are two reasons:
    1. The belief in genetics has blinded researchers to the great social, environmental causes of learning, motivation, and academics. 2. The present view of average stress sees stress only as occurring in some present situation, event, or work. We need to see how our average stress is made up many layers of past, present, future – experiences, fears, preparations for defense, needs, values of others, and a host of unresolved mental work that remains with us we each carry as individuals as an average that takes up real mental energy from thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and affects our mental/emotional health.
    To understand this we must redefine average stress as many layers of mental work that take up real mental energy. Picture an upright rectangle showing our full mental energy. Now begin at the bottom drawing in narrowly spaced, horizontal lines to represent many layers of past, present, future -experiences, *aggressions given children (that create long lasting mental conflict); values of self/others; anything creating unresolved mental work, needs, or anxiety both past and present. All of those layers are being mentally dealt with as layers of mental work. Stop about half way. The space leftover shows our leftover ability to think and learn. This shows just how environments and “differential treatment” greatly affect thinking and learning, not genetics. The Figure showing this will go to all on request.
    The problem is more complex than school curriculum or boy chemistry. We need to stop looking at where boys are in life, character, and behavior and begin seeing how boys are treated from infancy very differently from us as girls. We need to see how the more aggressive treatment they are given from infancy by parents, teachers, and peers is creating more learning problems and less than correct behavior or care for authority and school.
    To understand this, “we must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work we carry with us that take away real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, concentrate, and enjoy the learning process”. This differential treatment creates very real differences in learning by individual and by group.
    The problem involves two entirely different treatments of Males and Females as early as one year of age and increases in differential treatment. This is creating the growing Male Crisis. The belief Males should be strong allows more aggressive treatment of Males as early as one year, designed to create more layers of agitation, fear, and tension, so they will be prepared to fight, defend, and be tough. This is coupled with much “less” kind, stable, (very little verbal interaction) and less mental/emotional/social support, knowledge, and skills for fear of coddling. It is this more aggressive, less supportive treatment that creates the toughness or maintained, higher average layers of – anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, etc. This remains in the mind as higher average stress that take away real mental energy needed for academics. This increases over time and continued by society from parents, yes teachers, and others in society. This creates more social/emotional distance/distrust of others -parents and other authority figures who have knowledge; lags in communication, lower social vocabulary, poor sentence structure; also higher average stress: more layers of mental agitated conflicts and fears taking away real mental energy that hurt learning and motivation to learn. This also creates more activity due to need for stress relief from their higher average stress. It creates more defensiveness and wariness of others further limiting social and emotional growth. The higher average stress creates higher muscle tension (creating more pressure on the pencil and tighter grip) that hurts writing and motivation to write (hurting the writing and creating early fatigue). It creates much lag in development due to lack of care, creating a learned sense of helplessness in school. This differential treatment continues through adulthood, almost fixing many Males onto roads of failure and escape into more short-term areas of enjoyment. Also society gives Males love and honor (essential needs for self-worth) only on condition of some achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem and feelings of self-worth low to keep them striving and even give their lives in time of war for small measures of love and honor. Males not achieving in school or other are given more ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not an option for fear of coddling. Many Males thus falling behind in academics then turn their attention toward video games, and sports to receive small measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and the false belief in genetics creates a mental denial of any connection with differential treatment and the lower academics, lower esteem, and other problems, removing all good sense when it comes to raising boys today. I feel there is an almost emotional cannibalism allowed upon Males by society, even young Males who appear weak, all to make them tough.
    Note, it is not just about feelings and more openness that is needed as it is more support and care in general from infancy. Remember it is the aggressive treatment that is increased for any sign of weakness and much wariness they feel for others, especially adults (parents and teachers) who feel it necessary – and more freely allowed to use more aggressive treatment for any sign of weakness or vulnerability.
    As for reading, we need high social vocabulary, social experience with sentence structure, and “lower average stress to perform the abstract skill of reading: decoding, visualizing, organizing, reaching back into our social vocabulary to learn new words in print, and enjoying the process. Boys are deprived in these areas due to much less care, verbal interaction, and more aggressive treatment. This hurts boys in many ways when it comes to reading. As for writing, we also need much social vocabulary to understand and put words into print. We also need lower average stress to create more ease of writing. The substantial higher average stress in boys creates significant higher muscle tension, which then creates a much tighter grip and much more pressure on their pencil or pen. This creates poor handwriting and early fatigue. This later kills off motivation to write, hence more two and three word sentences from boys and very little writing. I feel the shows of masculinity and misbehavior are pretty much copouts to both show separation from failure in school and to gleam small measures of love and honor from peers. The defensiveness from authority is really pretty straight forward, especially in lower socioeconomic areas where strength, power, and status hold very real currency in those areas. For those students it is not just misbehavior but a real tug of war or fight for minimum feelings of self-worth from a continual fight they feel outside the classroom as well as in.
    The suicide epidemic is the result of Males being deprived sufficiently from those essential feelings of self-worth of less love and honor simply for being boys or men. The training they are given from an early age is preventing many of them from competing in the information age and thus losing the means to secure legally – income, status, and power to earn in some way, love and honor from society. This is also creating many continual interactions with even more aggressive, less respectful treatment, which only increases their psychological suffering, which further wears down their feelings of self-worth or desire to live. This creates over time, psychological suffering that wears down their remaining feelings of self-worth to the point of suicide. There is no net provided for Male children and adults, all designed to make them tougher, even to the point of suicide. All persons given such treatment may escape in many ways given more harsh, less supportive treatment, and less respect over time. I feel we are seeing only Male suicides and not seeing all of the many harmful escapes many persons are using instead of suicide in the form of much drug and alcohol abuse, now mainly by Male children and adults.
    As girls, we are treated much better and so enjoy more hope and care from society. Since we as girls by differential treatment are given much more positive, continual, mental, emotional/social support verbal interaction and care from an early age onward this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls compared with boys. We enjoy much more continuous care and support from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things: lower average stress for more ease of learning. We do enjoy much freedom of expression from much protection that makes us look less stable at times. Of course we can also use that same freedom of expression to give verbal, silent abuse, and hollow kindness/patronization to our Male peers with impunity knowing we are protected. We enjoy lower muscle tension for better handwriting/motivation; higher social vocabulary; lower average stress for reading/motivation; much more positive, trust/communication with adults, teachers, peers; and much more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket and time in that bracket the more amplified the differential treatment from a young age and increased and more differentiated over time. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor, while boys and men are still treated to be tough are failing more and so are being given even more ridicule and abuse by society and yes, also by girls and women using our protected freeness of expression and now, even from false feelings of superiority. My learning theory and article on the Male Crisis will go to all on request or can be read from my home site.

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