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

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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Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

Official Statistics on Educational Achievement in the U.K. – Strengths and Limitations

How useful are official statistics for understanding differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity?

How do GCSE results vary by social class, gender and ethnicity?

The data below is taken from either the Department for Education’s document – Key Stage 4 performance 2019 (Revised), or Gov.uk ‘ethnicity facts and figures‘. The later shows data from 2017/18 (at time of writing this), but it is much more accessible than the ‘Key Stage 4 document’.

Firstly – GENDER –  Girls outperformed boys in all headline measures in 2019.

For example 46.6% of girls achieved both English and Maths at grade 5 or above, compared to only 40.0% of boys, and girls are much more likley to be entered for the Ebacc than boys (45.9% compared to 34.3%

Secondly – ETHNICITY – Chinese pupils are the highest achieving group. 75.3% of Chinese pupils achieved a ‘strong pass’ (grade 5 or above) in English and Maths, with Indian pupils being the second highest achieving group, at 62%

Black Caribbean pupils have the lowest achievement of any ‘large’ ethnic minority group, with only 26.9% achieving a grade 5 or above in English and Maths

Gypsy/ Roma and Irish Traveller pupils have the lowest levels of achievement with only 9.95 and 5.3% respectively achieving a strong pass in English and Maths.

Thirdly – SOCIAL CLASS – Here, instead of social class we need to use the Department for Education’s ‘disadvantaged pupils’ category, which is the closest we’ve got as a proxy for social class, but isn’t quite the same!

The DFE says that “Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they are known to have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years , if they are recorded as having been looked after for at least one day or if they are recorded as having been adopted from care”.

In 2019, only 24.7% of disadvantages pupils achieved English and Maths GCSE at grade 5 or above, compared to almost 50% of all other pupils, meaning disadvantaged pupils are only half as likely to get both of these two crucial GCSEs.

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

ONE – Good Validity (as far as it goes) – These data aren’t collected by the schools themselves – so they’re not a complete work of fiction, they are based on external examinations or coursework which is independently verified, so we should be getting a reasonably true representation of actual achievement levels. HOWEVER, we need to be cautious about this.

TWO – Excellent representativeness – We are getting information on practically every pupil in the country, even the ones who fail!

THREE – They allow for easy comparisons by social class, gender and ethnicity. These data allow us to see some pretty interesting trends – As in the table below – the difference between poor Chinese girls and poor white boys stands out a mile… (so you learn straight away that it’s not just poverty that’s responsible for educational underachievement)

FOUR – These are freely available to anyone with an internet connection

FIVE – They allow the government to track educational achievement and develop social policies to target the groups who are the most likely to underachieve – These data show us (once you look at it all together) for example, that the biggest problem of underachievement is with white, FSM boys.

Some Disadvantages of the Department for Education’s Stats on Educational Achievement

ONE – If you look again at the DFE’s Key Stage four statistics, you’ll probably notice that it’s quite bewildering – there are so many different measurements that it obscures the headline data of ‘who achieved those two crucial GCSEs’.

When it comes to the ‘Attainment 8’ or ‘Progress 8’ scores, it is especially unclear what this means to anyone other than a professional teacher – all you get is a number, which means nothing to non professionals.

TWO – changes to the way results are reported mean it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. If you go back to 2015 then the standard was to achieve 5 good GCSEs in any subject, now the government is just focusing on English and Maths, Ebacc entry and attainment 8.

THREE – These stats don’t actually tell us about the relationship between social class background and educational attainment. Rather than recording data using a sociological conception of social class, the government uses the limited definition of Free School Meal eligibility – which is just an indicator of material deprivation rather than social class in its fuller sense. Marxist sociologists would argue that this is ideological – the government simply isn’t interested in measuring the effects of social class on achievement – and if you don’t measure it the problem kind of disappears.

FOUR – and this is almost certainly the biggest limitation – these stats don’t actually tell us anything about ‘WHY THESE VARIATIONS EXIST’ – Of course they allow us to formulate hypotheses – but (at least if we’re being objective’) we don’t get to see why FSM children are twice as likely to do badly in school… we need to do further research to figure this out.

No doubt there are further strengths and limitations, but this is something for you to be going on with at least…

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Assessing the Usefulness of Using Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

Gender and Educational Achievement – Evaluating the Role of Out of School Factors

One of the out of school factors which could explain why girls do better than boys in education is that girls have higher aspirations than boys.  Here’s some recent research which supports this while also suggesting that the relationship between gender and aspiration is also strongly influenced by social class background.

The data below’s taken from  The British Household Panel Survey and is based on a sample of nearly 5000 10-15 year olds. This research found (among other things!) that that boys are less likely than girls to aspire to go to college / university across all ethnic groups. The numbers are especially divergent for the white ethnic group – 57% (boys) and 74% (girls).

Gender and aspiration

However, when you break things down by social class background (NB this is analysis!) things look more differentiated – Basically, boys from professional class backgrounds aspire to university, but those from all other social class backgrounds generally do not, while girls from all social class backgrounds seem to aspire to go to university.

gender class and aspiration

To put it bluntly (OK crudely) what these statistical comparisons suggest is that working class boys don’t generally aspire to go to university, whereas working class girls do.

Strengths of this data

Nice easy comparisons – As evidenced in the perty charts.

You can use it as broad supporting evidence of girls aspirations being higher than boys, with an ‘analysis twist’

Limitations of this data 

Of course the above statistics (this is a classic limitation of quantitative data) tell you nothing about why working class boys but not working class girls do not aspire to go to university. It could be due to parental attitudes filtering down differently to girls than boys, or it may be other factors which have nothing to do with socialisation. These stats don’t actually tell us!

Questions for discussion 

  • Summarize the relationship between social class, gender and educational aspiration
  • Suggest one reason for the above relationship

Extension Question – This information was relatively easy to find, it’s quite easy to understand, directly relevant to the AS Sociology syllabus and gives you some easy analysis points – how many of the new (forthcoming) AS text books would you expect to find this information in?



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