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.
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.
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