This post aims to outline some of the factors which might explain why girls outperform boys in education, focusing on factors external to the school such as changes in gender roles, the impact of feminism and women’s empowerment.
What is The Gender Gap?
Up until the late 1980’s boys outperformed girls in O’Levels (before they were replaced by GCSE’s) as well as A Levels. They were also more likely to attend university than girls.
The latest 2016 figures show that:
- Girls have opened up their biggest gap over boys in A* to C GCSE grades for 14 years.
- 71.3 per cent of female entries were awarded at least a C grade, compared with just 62.4 per cent of their male counterparts.
- A higher percentage of female entries also achieved A* or A grades: 24.1 per cent compared with 16.8 per cent for boys – a gap of 7.3 percentage points
Interestingly, research from the Cambridge Assessment Research Report showed that the ‘gender gap was generally smaller in STEM and Language subjects (around 5 percentage points at grade C) and greater in Applied, Expressive and Humanities subjects (around 14 percentage points at grade C)’.
Factors explaining the gender gap
1. Changes in women’s employment
According to Social Trends (2008) the number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. There is a growing service sector where women are increasingly likely to be employed over men and employers increasingly seek women for higher managerial roles because they generally have better communication skills than men. This means women now have greater opportunity than men in the world of work which makes education more relevant to them than in the 1970s when there was a relative lack of opportunity for women compared to men.
Conversely, there is now less opportunity for men. The decline in manufacturing has lead to a decline in traditional working class men’s factory based jobs. Boys like the lads studied by Paul Willis would have intended to go into these jobs. Now these jobs have gone, many working class boys perceive themselves as having no future.
2. Changes in the family
The Office for National Statistics suggest that changes there have been changes in family structure: Women are more likely to take on the breadwinner role; there is now more divorce, and more lone parent families; women are more likely to remain single. This means that idea of getting a career is seen as normal by girls.
However, the increasing independence of women has lead to a more uncertain role for men in British society, leaving many men feeling vulnerable and unsure of their identity in society – suffering from a crisis of masculinity.
3. Girl’s changing ambitions
Sue Sharpe did a classic piece of research in the 1970s, repeated in the 1990s in which she interviewed young girls about their ambitions. In the 1970s there priorities were to get married and have a family, but by the 1990s their priorities were to get a career and have a family later on in life.
4. The impact of feminism
Feminism has campaigned for equal rights and opportunities for women in education, the workplace and wider society more generally. Feminist sociologists argue that many of the above changes have been brought about by their attempts to highlight gender inequalities in society and their efforts to encourage the government, schools and teachers to actually combat patriarchy and provide genuine equality of opportunity which has lead to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.
5. Differential socialisation
Fiona Norman in 1988 Found that most parents think the appropriate socialisation for a girl is to handle her very gently, and to encourage her in relatively passive, quiet activities. Parents are also more likely to read with girls than with boys. Gender stereotypes held by parents also mean that ‘typical boys’ need more time to run around and play and ‘let off steam’, and parents are more likely to be dismissive if their boys are in trouble at school often seeing this as just them being ‘typical boys’. These gender stereotypes and differences in gender socialisation disadvantage boys and advantage girls in education.
The Limitation of external factors in explaining differential educational achievement by gender
- The decline of manufacturing and crisis of masculinity only affects working class boys, possibly explaining their achievement relative to girls, but middle class girls outperform middle class boys too, who are less likely to associate masculinity with factory work.
- McDowell – research on aspirations of white working class youth A sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15. Followed from school to work. Criticizes the notion of a crisis of masculinity leading to aggressive male identities These lads had traditional laddish identities but were not aggressive or put off by ‘feminized work’ They are best described as reliable workers making the most of limited opportunities available to them.
- Willis in 1977 argued that the Lads formed a counter school culture and rejected education even when they had jobs to go to, meaning there are other causes of male underachievement besides the crisis of masculinity.
- It is difficult to measure the impact of Feminism – changes in the job market that lead to improved opportunities for women may be due to other technological and cultural changes.
- The socialisation girls does not explain why they started to overtake boys in the late 1980s – if anything gender socialisation has become more gender neutral in recent years.
Concepts and research studies to remember
- Crisis of Masculinity
- Gender socialisation
- Gender stereotyping
- Research studies to remember
- Kat Banyard – research into gender stereotyping in the family
- Sue Sharpe – the aspirations of girls.