Gender and Education

Who do you think perform better in school: boys or girls? What is the reasoning behind your answer? Read on to find out the relationship between gender and education.

Gender and Education Gender and Education

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Table of contents
    • We will discuss statistics regarding the gender inequality in educational achievement.
    • We will look at the different sociological explanations for the trend.
    • Furthermore, we will then move on to discuss how well girls and boys do in science subjects and what policies promote equality of opportunity in sciences.
    • Finally, we will look at different sociological studies concerned with girls' faster increase in educational achievement compared to boys'.

    Gender inequality in education

    Statistics have pointed to differences between pupils’ educational achievement based on their gender.

    Secondary school statistics

    Statistics from DfE (Department for Education) for the years 2014/15 showed that the percentage of girls achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE was 10.7% higher than for boys. The same gap dropped to 9.9 the following year; however, girls still achieved higher.

    The following table shows the percentage of boys and girls achieving A* - C grades at A level by subject. The data is from June 2016, and it includes all UK candidates.

    MalesFemales
    Chemistry76.977.1
    Physics70.674.2
    Maths79.880.8
    History81.285.1
    Sociology68.876.3
    Art and Design77.685.4
    English77.681.9

    Table 1: Male vs. Female A*-C grades for A-level subjects, 2016. Source: Department for Education

    University statistics

    In the UK, women are 35% more likely to go to university.

    In 1990 only 34,000 women graduated from universities all over the UK while the number of male university graduates was 43,000. By 2000 the numbers changed completely. At the turn of the millennium, 133,000 women and only 110,000 men graduated from universities.

    But how can we explain the differences in boys' and girls' educational achievement?

    Gender and education: the rise of feminism

    The feminist movement has generated new ideas of and attitudes to women’s roles in society.

    Previously, boys were expected to study and later go on to work and support their families financially while girls were taught to take domestic responsibilities, which often did not require extensive or high education.

    Feminists challenged the idea that a woman’s role in society can only be fulfilled as a wife and mother. After the first and (especially) the second wave of feminism, women started to be more confident in their abilities and went on to achieve great things in education and the workplace.

    Changing aspirations

    Let's look at how women's aspirations have changed over time.

    Sue Sharpe (1994)

    Sharpe did interviews with girls in the 1970s and in the 1990s. She was interested in their aspirations and values in life. She found that in the 1970s, girls predominantly valued finding love, having a husband, a family and a home to direct. These attitudes seemed to have changed.

    In the 1990s, girls valued career achievement and financial independence highly.

    Fuller (2011)

    Fuller (2011) did a similar study in 2011 and found that educational success and the ability to enter a professional career was an essential part of girls’ identity.

    What more needs to be done?

    Liberal feminists point out that complete equality in education and in the workplace is yet to be achieved. They argue that equality of opportunity-policies can further the cause, and the challenging of sexist attitudes and stereotypes in school can also contribute to the development of equality.

    Radical feminists, on the other hand, claim that policies and changing attitudes can do very little for women and girls if the system remains patriarchal, like it is now. They highlight the numerous times and ways girls are subject to sexism in schools, how girls’ educational achievement is underrepresented and that male teachers are more likely to be appointed as heads of educational institutions.

    Gender and education: cultural factors

    There are further aspects and explanations of girls' higher achievement in school.

    Changing job opportunities

    Sociologists predict that in the future, more women will be in paid-employment than men. It is also predicted that the number of traditionally ‘male’ professions within manufacturing and engineering will be decreasing, while the number of traditionally ‘female’ jobs within the service sector will be increasing. Women might be needed more in the job market than men.

    Legal changes and equal opportunities policies

    Several legal changes have taken place that have changed the relationship between gender and education.

    The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975

    This act made the negative discrimination against any individual based on their sex in education illegal. It raised awareness of the overwhelming dominance of men in science subjects, for example.

    Kelly (1981) found that textbooks presented images of mainly male scientists; there were very few female role models for school children interested in pursuing a career in science, and the classes were dominated by male teachers and students. She concluded that this resulted in sciences being perceived as ‘male’ subjects.

    To improve the imbalance, national projects were set up to promote science subjects among girls and support those who wanted to pursue high education in science.

    GIST (Girls into Science and Technology) and GATE (Girls And Technology Education) were the two most important programmes supporting girls’ involvement in science and technology.

    The introduction of the National Curriculum

    The National Curriculum dictates a set material for schools and students in the UK. Certain subjects, like science, are compulsory for everyone. As a result, boys and girls have equal access to the same subjects.

    Why do girls and boys choose different subjects?

    Let's see how gender truly affects subject choices by looking at the following table. The information has been taken from Joint Council for Qualifications (2016).

    BoysGirls
    Chemistry25,93725,874
    Physics27,6997,645
    Mathematics56,53535,628
    History25,25229,497
    Sociology7,84826,132
    Art and Design10,31532,927
    English22,98061,730

    Table 2 - A-Level subject choice by gender, 2016. Source: Joint Council for Qualifications

    Understanding the reasons behind different subject choices between girls and boys may help us further understand the relationship between gender and education.

    External factors

    Murphy and Elwood (1999) argued that gender socialisation, which happens in the family, is one of the reasons for girls and boys choosing certain subjects in school. The way parents treat their children and the expectations they set up for them can later shape their interests in school.

    Boys might spend more time outside in nature or with helping fix things around the house. This might make them more familiar than girls with science subjects. As a result, science is often seen as a ‘male’ subject.

    In-school factors

    Mitsos and Browne (1998) pointed to in-school factors that stand behind the gender division when it comes to school subjects. The four most important factors are:

    • Gender stereotypes in textbooks

    • The lack of female role models in science and mathematics textbooks

    • Gender stereotyping by teachers

    • The domination of the science equipment in the classroom by male teachers and students

    Single-sex and mixed schools

    Some sociologists argue that single-sex schools are beneficial for girls’ development. They seem especially supporting for girls in science subjects.

    There has been experiment of single-sex classrooms in mixed schools. This means that girls and boys were separated for certain subjects during their education. The aim was to eliminate the disruptive behaviour of the other sex from learning.

    One of the key educational theorists of the UK, Alan Smithers - who is also a Professor of Education at Buckingham University - argued that single-sex classrooms and single-sex schools are not as beneficial for girls as others think. As the matter of fact, he says, it makes no difference to the attainment of girls.

    Gender and Education girls in school chatting whilst teacher talks StudySmarterFig. 1 - According to Smithers, same-sex classrooms are not as beneficial for students educational development as other sociologists believe.

    Smithers points out that people think single-sex schools are better because they do well at the league tables. However, it is not the single-sex nature of them which makes them do well, but the socio-economic background of their students.

    Single-sex schools tend to be independent grammar schools, where the pupils are from middle-class, wealthy backgrounds. Smithers refers to the results of a Scottish study published in 2006, which proved that singe-sex classes do not result in better educational achievement of boys. Rather, it led to greater indiscipline.

    Gender and education: social issues

    Statistics show that both girls’ and boys’ educational achievement are increasing, however not at the same rate. The rate of girls’ educational success is increasing faster than that of boys. Why is that?

    Research of Harris et al. (1993)

    Harris et al. did research on the educational achievement of 16-year-old students with working-class backgrounds. They found that:

    • Boys are suffering from low self-esteem and poor motivation

    • Girls are much more willing to struggle to get through difficulties in their studies

    • Girls are more hard-working on the long term, while boys get distracted much more easily

    • Boys find it harder to organise their time effectively when doing coursework

    • Girls spend more time on homework

    • Girls are more concerned about getting qualifications for their future careers than boys

    Things have changed since Harris’s research in the 1990s. However, there are new studies suggesting further explanations - some similar to Harris’ findings - for the increasing educational success of girls.

    Gender and education: impact of external and in-school factors on boys

    Let us look at three different explanations as to why boys may not be achieving at a rate as fast as girls.

    School environment

    Moir and Moir (1998) argued that educational institutions have become too ‘girl friendly’, which means that they don’t suit boys and their need in terms of educational development. They point to the emphasis on verbal skills, and to the non-competitive environment that schools aspire to as examples of ‘girl friendly’ education.

    Self-image

    Katz (2000) claims that peer pressure and the fear of being teased for studying contributes to boys’ underachievement and lack of effort in school. Katz also argued that boys nowadays see a lot of incompetent male role models in the media and advertising, which undermines their self-esteem.

    Low self-esteem is linked to the disappearance of traditionally male jobs and to boys being uncertain about their futures and lacking motivation.

    The meaning of masculinity

    James (2000) argued that while women reassessed their role in society and decided that education and paid employment is a significant part of their lives, men are more uncertain about what their role in society is. The meaning of masculinity is being reassessed.

    James argues that nowadays being good at school is not necessarily seen as the most masculine feature, especially among the working-class, so boys tend not to work hard for educational success.

    Gender and Education - Key takeaways

    • Statistics have pointed to differences between pupils’ educational achievement based on their gender.
    • The feminist movement has generated new ideas of and attitudes to women’s roles in society. Liberal feminists point out that complete equality in education and in the workplace is yet to be achieved.
    • The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 made the negative discrimination against any individual based on their sex in education illegal.

    • Murphy and Elwood (1999) argued that gender socialisation, which happens in the family, is one of the reasons for girls and boys choosing certain subjects in school.

    • Statistics show that both girls’ and boys’ educational achievement are increasing, however not at the same rate. The rate of girls’ educational success is increasing faster than that of boys.

    Gender and Education Gender and Education
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Gender and Education

    What is the relationship between gender and education?

    Statistics have pointed to differences between pupils’ educational achievement based on their gender. Girls usually achieve higher than boys.

    What is the role of gender in education?

    Statistics from DfE (Department for Education) for the years 2014/15 showed that the percentage of girls achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE was 10.7% higher than for boys. The same gap dropped to 9.9 the following year; however, girls still achieved higher.


    What are the gender issues in education?

    Radical feminists highlight the numerous times and ways girls are subject to sexism in schools, how girls’ educational achievement is underrepresented and that male teachers are more likely to be appointed as heads of educational institutions.

    Why is education important for gender equality?

    If women can enter the job market on the same grounds as men, they can achieve gender equality. For this, they need to gain qualifications through education.

    What are the causes of gender inequality in education?

    Statistics show that both girls’ and boys’ educational achievement are increasing, however not at the same rate. The rate of girls’ educational success is increasing faster than that of boys. Among the reasons for this, there are the facts that boys are suffering from low self-esteem and poor motivation, and that girls seem to be more hard-working on the long term.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Statistics from DfE (Department for Education) for the years 2014/15 showed that the percentage of girls achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE was 10.7% higher than for boys. The same gap dropped to 9.9 the following year; however, girls still achieved higher.

    Who did better in History at A-levels in 2016 in the UK?

    Who did better in Physics at A-levels in 2016 in the UK?

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