Why girls are outclassing boys at school

The Economist reports:

Until the 1960s boys spent longer and went further in school than girls, and were more likely to graduate from university. Now, across the rich world and in a growing number of poor countries, the balance has tilted the other way. Policymakers who once fretted about girls’ lack of confidence in science now spend their time dangling copies of “Harry Potter” before surly boys. Sweden has commissioned research into its “boy crisis”. Australia has devised a reading programme called “Boys, Blokes, Books & Bytes”. In just a couple of generations, one gender gap has closed, only for another to open up.

So it is a global issue, not just a NZ issue.

The reversal is laid out in a report published on March 5th by the OECD, a Paris-based rich-country think-tank. Boys’ dominance just about endures in maths: at age 15 they are, on average, the equivalent of three months’ schooling ahead of girls. In science the results are fairly even. But in reading, where girls have been ahead for some time, a gulf has appeared. In all 64 countries and economies in the study, girls outperform boys. The average gap is equivalent to an extra year of schooling.

That’s a huge difference.

To see why boys and girls fare so differently in the classroom, first look at what they do outside it. The average 15-year-old girl devotes five-and-a-half hours a week to homework, an hour more than the average boy, who spends more time playing video games and trawling the internet. Three-quarters of girls read for pleasure, compared with little more than half of boys.

So parents need to make reading cool for boys.

Once in the classroom, boys long to be out of it. They are twice as likely as girls to report that school is a “waste of time”, and more often turn up late. Just as teachers used to struggle to persuade girls that science is not only for men, the OECD now urges parents and policymakers to steer boys away from a version of masculinity that ignores academic achievement. “There are different pressures on boys,” says Mr Yip. “Unfortunately there’s a tendency where they try to live up to certain expectations in terms of [bad] behaviour.”

Gender stereotypes for most of our history have worked against women, but now gender stereotypes in are working against boys and men.

Perhaps because they can be so insufferable, teenage boys are often marked down. The OECD found that boys did much better in its anonymised tests than in teacher assessments.

Discrimination on the basis of gender?

What is behind this discrimination? One possibility is that teachers mark up students who are polite, eager and stay out of fights, all attributes that are more common among girls. In some countries, academic points can even be docked for bad behaviour. Another is that women, who make up eight out of ten primary-school teachers and nearly seven in ten lower-secondary teachers, favour their own sex, just as male bosses have been shown to favour male underlings.

The lack of male teachers is a concern.

Girls’ educational dominance persists after school. Until a few decades ago men were in a clear majority at university almost everywhere (see chart 2), particularly in advanced courses and in science and engineering. But as higher education has boomed worldwide, women’s enrolment has increased almost twice as fast as men’s. In the OECD women now make up 56% of students enrolled, up from 46% in 1985. By 2025 that may rise to 58%.

At 60%, there would be 50% more women than men in tertiary education.

Social change has done more to encourage women to enter higher education than any deliberate policy. The Pill and a decline in the average number of children, together with later marriage and childbearing, have made it easier for married women to join the workforce. As more women went out to work, discrimination became less sharp. Girls saw the point of study once they were expected to have careers. Rising divorce rates underlined the importance of being able to provide for yourself. These days girls nearly everywhere seem more ambitious than boys, both academically and in their careers.

The mass entrance of women into the workforce and higher education is one of the great trends of the 20th century. Now the challenge is to ensure boys are not left behind educationally.

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