Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

Changes in women’s employment, family life, ambitions, socialisation and the impact of feminism all explain the gender gap in education

Last Updated on May 17, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Girls outperform boys in most subjects at every level of education: from primary school to degree level. There are five main social factors external to the school which explain why girls outperform boys in education:

  • changes in women’s employment
  • changes in the family
  • changing girls’ ambitions
  • the impact of feminism
  • differential socialisation of boys and girls.

This post explores these five social factors analysing the impact they may have on girls in education, and then goes on to look at personal level factors.

Changes in women’s employment

The number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. The employment rate for women is 72.3% and for men it is 79% (2).

This represents a significant change since the early 1970s when the employment rate for men was over 90% and for women it was under 60%.  

Over the last 50 years there has been 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 led 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.

A review of the literature by Bertocchi and Bozzano (2019) found that the improvement in female educational achievement from the 1980s to the 2000s can be explained by the increasing post-school expectations for females and the increasing probability that women could go into high-income occupations relative to men.

Pekkarinen (2012) theorised that the widening gap between females and males in education is due to the relative effort-costs of education in relation to returns. Since the 1980s females have been seeing increasing returns on their investment in education as they have greater and greater access to better jobs, while boys have been experiencing reducing returns relative to girls.

There are a lack of high status higher vocational courses and qualifications in England and Wales, which would be more appealing to boys compared to degrees (boys are much more likely to do vocational courses). Only 4% of over 25 year olds in England hold a higher vocational qualification compared to Germany where it is over 20%!

Changes in the family

Changes in family life and structure over the past 50 years mean it is much more normal for women to start a career in their 20s and maintain that career through their adult lives.

People get married much later in life, in their mid to late 30s rather than in their 20s, and dual earner households are now the norm, both of which normalise women having careers.

Divorce Rates (and just relationship breakdowns) are also high as a rates of single parent households (most of which are headed by women), both of which would encourage women to work as in both situations it is desirable to have your own income.

However, the increasing independence of women has led 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.

These changes may feed back into education, encouraging women and discouraging men.

Girls’ 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 their 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.

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 led to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.

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.

Aucejo and James (2016) conducted a study which found that verbal skills were more important than maths skills in gaining a place at university, and females have significantly better verbal skills than males.

Personal level Factors

A summary of some recent research on differential achievement by gender by Cavaglia et al (1) found that a range of individual and personal level factors contribute to the gender gap in education, many of which will work in conjunction with the social level factors above.

Terrier (2020) found that teacher bias plays a role in why girls do better than boys in education.

According to the OECD (2015), the most important reasons for the gender gap are students’ attitudes towards learning, their behaviour in school, their use of leisure time, and their self-confidence.

A review of the literature by Buchmann et al. (2008) found that males are more likely than females to experience reading disabilities, antisocial behaviour, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, and speech difficulties.

There is also evidence that adolescent girls score higher in tests measuring non-cognitive skills such as attentiveness, organisational skills, and self-discipline.

Bertrand and Pan (2013) found that boys behavioural problems stem from their home backgrounds: boys’ behaviour is more strongly influenced by their parents than the behaviour of girls.

One counter to this lies in research from Lundberg (2017) – boys and girls react to home and school problems in different ways: boys are more likely to develop behavioural problems, girls to develop anxiety and depression, but this doesn’t explain the gender gap alone. Possibly the differential reaction in school does: schools are more likely to react negatively to boys behaving badly than girls being quiet!

Boys are more likely than girls to fail their GCSE English by getting lower than a grade C/4 and Machin et al. (2020) found that even marginally failing to get a good grade drastically reduces the chances of a student staying on into further and higher education and increases their chances of becoming NEET.

The main set of exams, GCSEs, which have a huge impact on future educational pathways are sat at 16, when boys are going through puberty, this probably puts them at a disadvantage to girls who go through puberty earlier.

Differences in innate ability do not explain the gender gap

A literature review by Spelke (2005) found that sex differences in cognitive abilities do not explain the gender gap in education. While girls do have intrinsically slightly higher cognitive abilities, they are not significant enough alone to make them more adept at schoolwork than boys.

Limitations of external factors in explaining the gender gap in education

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 conducted research on the aspirations of white working-class youth. He researched a sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15 and followed them from school to work. The findings Criticise 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 secure jobs they could just walk into, 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.

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

(2) House of Commons Research Briefing (March 2023) Women and the UK Economy.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post covers one of the main topics within the sociology of education, for A-level Sociology.

Evaluating the role of External Factors in Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – The Role of Internal Factors

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4 thoughts on “Explaining the Gender Gap in Education”

  1. The Male Crisis is growing due to differential treatment from infancy. The genetics models greatly favor individuals in higher socioeconomic environments who then falsely justify the plight of less affluent persons as not as intelligent or simply not working hard enough. They do not say how Female students in their areas are doing better collectively than their Male peers from their same socioeconomic environments. They are totally ignoring how their individual environments greatly affect their thinking, learning, motivation to learn and their mental health. I imagine there are two reasons
    The false belief in genetics has blinded the researchers to the great social, environmental causes of learning and motivation in academics. There is the present very improper view of average stress which sees stress as only occurring from some immediate situation event or work. We need to see how our average stress is made up of many layers of past present future experiences fears preparations for defense needs values of self and others also corrupted by our false genetics models and other mental conflicts which remain with us taking away real mental energy from thinking learning motivation and mental health. So all of us suffer from some amount or layers of maintained unresolved mental work which limits our leftover mental energy for thinking learning and mental health.
    As we can see the problem involving differential treatment and learning is much more complex than school curriculum. We need to stop looking at where boys are in life and behavior and begin see how boys are treated very differently from us as girls from infancy by parents teachers peers and society all to make them tough. This is creating the activity less maturity more learning problems and more fear of authority figures.
    The belief boys should be strong allows for more aggressive treatment from one year of age designed to create layers of anger and fear so they will be prepared to fight and be tough. This is coupled with much less kind stable little verbal interaction and less mental/emotional support knowledge and skills for fear of coddling. It is this aggressive treatment which creates the extra maintained layers of average stress anger and fear. These layers remain in the mind and take away real mental energy from academics so those boys will have to work much harder to receive the same mental reward for work expended. This treatment creates more social/emotional distrust of others parents and teachers. It creates lags in social vocabulary and other communication we as girls are given on a continuous basis. The higher average stress creates more activity not genetics but environmentally created. The higher stress creates higher muscle tension which creates more pressure on pencil and a tighter grip hurting handwriting and causing early fatigue. This creates more failure and hopelessness especially with our false genetic models firmly in place. To make it even tougher for boys is the giving of love and honor feelings of selfworth only on condition of achievement or status. This was designed to keep Male esteem feelings of self-worth low to give their lives in time of war for measures of love and honor from society. Males not achieving are given ridicule and discipline to make them try harder. Support is not given for fear of coddling. Many boys falling behind in school turn their attention to sports and video games to gain measures of love and honor not received in the classroom. The belief boys should be strong and false belief in genetics creates blatant denial of differential treatment which is creating the lower academics and other problems many boys are facing today. There is an emotional cannibalism allowed upon boys and men who appear weak in some way by parents and teachers even from many girls and women.
    As girls we are treated much better and enjoy more care from society. Since we as girls are given more continual positive mental social/emotional support verbal interaction from an early age this creates the opposite outcome for girls. We enjoy much more care and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. We enjoy lower average stress for ease of learning. We enjoy much freedom of expression that makes us look unstable at times. We can use that same freedom of expression to give verbal silent abuse and hollow kindness to our Male peers with impunity. We enjoy low muscle tension for handwriting. We enjoy positive communication from parents and teachers. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the bracket the more amplified the differential treatment. Now women taking over many areas of society we enjoy even more lavishing of love and honor while men are now given even more ridicule and abuse by society. Mind you this is also now coming from many women using our protected expression and more so with false feelings of superiority. My learning theory will go to all on request.

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