Gender differences in education

  • Created by: rdowd40
  • Created on: 18-04-19 18:51

Gender patterns in achievement

In the past, boys out-performed girls, but since the 1980s girls have improved more rapidly and now they do better than boys at all levels and in most subjects:

  • At Key stages 1 to 3, girls do consistently better than boys, especially in English. In science and maths the gap is narrower.
  • At GCSE, girls are around 10 percentage points ahead.
  • At AS and A-level, girls more likely to pass, and to get higher grades, through the gap is narrower than at GCSE.
  • Girls even do better in traditional boys' subject like sciences.
  • More girls than boys go into higher education.

Reasons for improvement in girls' achievement

The possible reasons for improvements in girls' educational achievement can be divided into external and internal factors:

  • External factors - factors outside the education system, such as home and family background, the job market and wider society.
  • Internal factors - factors within schools and education system, such as the effect of schools' equal opportunities policies. 
1 of 22

External factors and girls' achievement: The influ

Since the 1960s, feminists have challenged patriarchy in all areas of social life and rejected the traditional stereotypes of women as inferior to men in the home, work, education and law.

  • Feminists have had an impact on women's rights and opportunities through campaigns to win changes in the law, e.g. on equal pay, outlawing **** in marriage etc. 
  • More broadly, feminists ideas are likely to have affected girls' self-image and aspirations. As a result, they are more motivated to do well in education. 
2 of 22

External factors: Girls' changing perceptions and

Linking to the influence of feminism, studies show that there has been a major shift in how girls see themselves and their future:

Sharpe (1994) compared her two studies of working-class girls in the 1970s and 1990s. She found that in the 1970s, girls' priorities were 'love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers, more or less in that order'. They saw their future in terms of a domestic role, not paid work. In the 1990s, priorities had switched to careers and being able to be independent. 

Francis (2001) found that girls now had high career aspirations and so needed educational qualifications. 

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2001) argue that independence is valued more than in the past. A career has become part of women's life project. 

Fuller (2011) found some girls aimed for a professional career to support themselves. But many working-class girls with poor job prospects have stereotyped aspirations for marriage and children - an attainable traditional identity that offers status. 

3 of 22

External factors: Changes in the family

There have been major changes in the family since the 1970s:

  • An increase in the divorce rate - about 42% of marriages now end this way.
  • More lone parent families, over 90% of which are female headed.
  • More cohabitation and a decrease in first marriages.
  • Smaller families and more women staying single.

These changes mean women have both more need and more opportunity to be economically independent - and this gives them motivation to do well educationally and get good qualifications.

4 of 22

External factors: Changes in women's employment

There are now more employment opportunities for women than previously as a result of the expansion of the service sector - traditionally an area of women's work. Women's employment has risen from under half of married women in te 1950s to about three quarters today.

Changes in the law have improved the position of working women:

  • The 1970 Equal Pay Act and the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act give women more employment rights. 
  • Since 1975, the pay gap between men and women has almost halved. 

As a result of these changes, girls today have more incentive to see their future in terms of paid work and this creates an incentive for them to gain qualifications. 

5 of 22

Internal factors: Equal opportunities policies

Feminist ideas are now widespread in the education system. In particular, the basic belief in gender equality and that boys and girls are equally capable and should have the same opportunitiesis now widely accepted and has become a social norm within education. 

This has led to policies aimed at giving girls and boys equal opportunities, such as:

  • GIST and WISE programmes to encourage girls into science and technology
  • The National Curriculum, introduced in 1988, means that girls and boys now largely study the same subjects. For example, making science compulsory has helped to equalise opportunities.

Meritocracy As a result of such policies, education is now more meritocratic (based on the principle of equal opportunity). Now that girls have more equal opportunities than in the past, they are able to do better. 

6 of 22

Internal factors: Role Models and Coursework

There are now more female teachers and head teachers than in the past and these provide positive, pro-educational role models for girls. 

The presence of more female teachers also 'feminises' the learning environment and encourages girls to see school as part of a female 'gender domain'. As a result, they come to percieve educational success as a desirable feminine characteristic.

According to Mitsos and Browne (1998), girls do better than boys in coursework, because they are more conscientious and better organised. Girls mature earlier and can concentrate for longer. 

As a result, its introduction into the curriculum boosted girls' exam results more than boys'. For example, Gorard (2005) found that the gender gap in achievement  increased sharply when GCSE was introduced in 1988, because coursework was a major part of most subjects.

Although coursework has some impact on results, Elwood (2005) notes that exams have more influence on final grades, so the introduction of coursework had only limited effect on gender differences in achievement. 

7 of 22

Internal factors: Stereotypes in learning material

Studies of reading schemes, textbooks and other learning materials have shown that in the past, females were both under-represented and were portrayed as subordinate to males, in domestic roles or unsuited to certain subjects (e.g. science). 

However, since the 1980s, many of these sexist images have been removed and replaced with more positive images of females. This may have an impact on girls' perceptions of what women can do and thus may raise their aspirations. 

8 of 22

Internal factors: Teacher attention

Earlier studies, e.g. Spender (1983), found that teachers spent more time interacting with boys than with girls. However, more recent studies suggest girls may benefit more than boys:

  • French and French (1993) found that teachers paid boys and girls similar amounts of attention for academic reasons. But boys recieved more attention overall because they attracted more punishments for misbehaviour. 
  • Francis (2001) found that although boys recieved more attention, they were disciplined more harshly and felt teachers picked on them and had lower expectations of them. 
  • Swann (1998) found that boys dominate class discussions whereas girls prefer group work and are better at listening and cooperating. This finds favour with teachers, who respond more positively to girls and give them more encouragement. 
9 of 22

Internal factors: Selection and league tables

  • Girls are generally more successful than boys, so they are more attractive to schools.
  • Boys are lower-achieving and more badly-behaved (they are four times more likely than girls to be excluded). Schools see them as 'liability students' who will give them a bad image and produce poor results. 

As a result, girls are more likely to get places in successful schools. In turn, girls get a better education and achieve more.

Liberal feminists welcome the progress made by equal opportunities policies. Radical feminists are more critical 

Girls are now achieving more, but radical feminists argue that the education system remains patriarchal, e.g. sexual harassment of girls at school; education limits subject choices and careers; secondary school heads are still more likely to be men. 

10 of 22

Internal factors: Identity, class and girls' achie

Working-class girls underachieve. Archer (2010) claims this is because of a conflict between their feminine identities and the school's habitus. They face a choice: gain symbolic capital from peers by conforming to a working-class feminine identity, or gain educational capital (qualifications) by conforming to the school's middle-class notions of the ideal female pupil. 

  • Hyper-heterosexual feminine identities Many girls construct 'glamorous' identities that earn symbolic capital from their female peers but cause conflict with school over their appearance. The school commits symbolic violence, defining the girls' culture as worthless. 
  • Boyfriends bring symbolic capital but get in the way of schoolwork and lower girls' aspirations.
  • Being 'loud' Adopting outspoke, assertive identities. Teachers see this as aggressive. 
  • Ladettes Adopting a tomboyish, 'Nike' identity, being sporty, truanting and getting excluded. 

'Successful' working class girls

Some working class girls do succeed, but Evans (2009) found they may still be disadvantaged by their gender and class identities. Girls wanted to go to university to increase their earning power and help their families. 

They chose to live at home, reflecting their working-class feminine habitus, but the cost of living away and fear of debt was a further reason, and this limited their choices and future earning power.

11 of 22

Boys' underachievement: Literacy

Recently, attention has focused on reasons for boys' underachievement. Sociologists have identified several factors that may be responsible. Some of these are the 'opposite' of the factors that have led to girls' performance improving, such as the kind of role models in schools or at home, or the jobs available to males and females. 

One reason for boys lagging behind is their poorer literacy skills.

  • Parents spend less time reading to sons and its mainly mothers who read to young children and so reading is seen as a feminine activity.
  • Boys' leisure interests (e.g. sport and computer games) don't encourage language and communication skills, whereas girls' 'bedroom culture' does.

Because language and literacy are important in most subjects, boys' poorer skills have a wide-ranging effect on their achievement.

12 of 22

Boys' underachievement: Globalisation and decline

Since the 1980s, globalisation has led to much manufacturing industry relocating to developing countries, leading to a decline in heavy industries like shipbuilding, mining, and manufacturing in the UK. Some argue that the resulting decline in male employment opportunities has led to a male 'identity crisis', with a loss of motivation and self-esteem. Many boys now believe they have little prospect of getting jobs and so cease trying to get qualifications. 

Traditional male manual jobs needed few qualifications, so it seems unlikely that the disappearance of these jobs would affect boys' motivation to obtain qualifications. 

13 of 22

Boys' underachievement: Feminisation of schooling

Sewell (2006) argues that boys fall behind because education has become 'feminised'. Schools no longer nurture 'masculine' traits, e.g. competitiveness and leadership. 

  • Some argue that assessment has been feminised by the introduction of coursework and this disadvantages boys. 
  • Lack of male primary school teachers: only 1 in 6 primary school teachers are men and over 60% of 8-11 year old boys have no lessons with a male teacher. This may give boys the idea that education is a feminine activity. 

Is lack of male teachers a factor? Read (2008) criticises the claim that only male teachers can exert the firm discipline boys need. She the kinds of language teachers use.

Disciplinarian discourse, where the teacher's authority is made explicit, e.g. through shouting, is usually associated with masculinity. Yet Read found that female teachers also used in this style, disproving the claim that only male teachers can provide the stricter classroom culture boys aare said to need

Female teachers may adopt a 'masculine' style of classroom discipline, but is it as effective as when a male teacher uses it?

14 of 22

Boys' underachievement: Lack of male role models a

The increase in the number of female-headed lone parent families (around 1.5 million) means that now many boys grow up lacking a positive male role model who goes out to work to support a family. These boys may thus be less likely to see the value of employment and therefore also of qualifications. 

'Laddish' subcultures

Are 'laddish' subcultures an internal or external factor as they operate both inside and outside school?

These may lead to boys' under-achievement. Studies show that there is peer pressure on boys to demonstrate their masculinity by being anti-school:

  • Francis (2001) found that boys were more concerned than girls about being labelled by peers as swots, because this threatens their masculine identity. Working-class culture sees non-manual work (including schoolwork) as effeminate and inferior.
  • Epstein (1998) found that pro-school working-class boys were likely to be harassed, labelled as 'gay' and subjected to verbal abuse. 

As girls move into traditional masculine areas such as paid work, boys become more 'laddish' in an effort to identify themselves as non-feminine and this leads to under-achievement.

Studies suggest that 'laddish' subcultures are largely working class. As Connolly (2006) notes, there is an 'interactions effect' - certain combinations of gender and class (or gender and ethnicity) have more effect on achievement than others.  

15 of 22

Boys' underachievement: Policies to raise boys' un

Concern about boys' under-achievement relative to girls has led to the introduction of a range of policies.

These often use boys' leisure interests (e.g. sport) and famous male role models and are aimed at improving boys' literacy skills and motivation to achieve. Examples include the Raising Boys Achievement project, the Reading Champions scheme and Playing for success. 

The moral panic about boys Ringrose (2013) argues that the moral panic about 'failing boys' has led to neglect of problems faced by girls e.g. sexual harassment and stereotyped subject choices. 

16 of 22

Gender and subject choice

Although girls have overtaken boys in achievement, there continues to be major gender differences in subject choice. Girls and boys follow different 'gender routes' in their subject choices. 

  • In the National Curriculum, most subjects are compulsory, but where choice is possible, girls and boys choose differently; e.g. in design and technology, girls choose food technology, boys chooose resistant materials.
  • In post-16 education, there is more choice available and big gender differences emerge; e.g. boys opt for maths and physics while girls choose modern languages, English and sociology. This pattern continues into higher education. 
  • In vocational subjects, gender segregation is at its greatest; only 1% of construction apprentices are female.  
17 of 22

Explaining gender differences in subject choice

Several factors are responsible for gender differences in subject choice.

  • Early socialisation and gender domains 
  • Gendered subject images
  • Gender identity and peer pressure
  • Gendered career opportunities 

Early socialisation Gender role socialisation involves learning the behaviour expected of males and females.

  • In the family, from an early age, boys and girls are dressed differently and given different toys, while boys are rewarded for being active and girls for being passive.
  • At school, Byrne (1979) found, teachers encourage boys to be tough and show initiative, while they expect girls to be quiet, helpful, clean and tidy. 
  • Leisure reading and subject choice Murphy and Elwood (1998) found that boys read hobby books and information texts and so prefer science subjects, while girls read stories about people and prefer English. 
18 of 22

Explaining gender differences in subject choice

Gender domains are tasks and activities seen as either male or female 'territory'; e.g. looking after an elderly person is 'female'. These views are shaped by children's early experiences and by the expectations of adults. Browne and Ross (1991) found that, when set open-ended tasks such as designing a boat, boys designed powerboats and battleships, while girls designed cruise ships, reflecting different gender domains. 

Gendered subject images Related to gender domains, subjects have a 'gender image' - they are seen as either male or female. For example, science is mainly taught by men and textbooks traditionally use boys' interests as examples. As a result, it is seen as a masculine subject, part of the male gender domain, and so is taken mostly by boys.

Gender identity and peer pressure Other boys and girls pressurise individuals to conform. Boys often opt out of music because of negative peer response, while girls who choose sport have to contend with accusations from boys of being 'butch' or 'lesbian'. This also links to subject image and gender domains - sport is seen as masculine, music as feminine. 

Pupils in single-sex schools make less traditional subject choices. This may be because there is no opposite-sex peer pressure to conform to gender-stereotypical subject choices

19 of 22

Explaining gender differences in subject choice

Gendered careers Many jobs are seen as either 'men's' or 'women's' and tend to be dominated by one gender - e.g. nursing and construction work. Vocational courses, which prepare young people for specific careers, therefore also tend to be dominated by one gender or the other. Working-class pupils may make decisions about courses based on a traditional gender identity. 

20 of 22

Gender identity and schooling

Pupils' school experiences may reinforce their gender and sexual identities.

  • Connell (1995) argues that school reproduces 'hegemonic masculinity' - the dominance of heterosexual masculine identity and subordination of female and gay identities. 
  • Feminists argue that experiences in school act as a form of social control to reproduce patriarchy - male domination and female subordination. This happens in several way:

Verbal abuse Name calling puts girls down if they behave in certain ways and acts as a form of social control to make them conform to male expectations.

  • Lees (1986) notes that boys call girls 'slags' if they appear sexually available, but there is no equivalent term for males. Paechter notes that pupils police one another's sexual identities through negative labels. 
  • Mac an Ghaill (1992) found that anti-school working-class boys' subcultures use verbal abuse to reinforce their defintions of masculinity. They called other working-class boys who worked hard, '******** achievers'. 
21 of 22

Gender identity and schooling

Teachers - Haywood and Mac an Ghaill (1996) found that male teachers reinforced gender identities by telling boys off for 'behaving like girls' and ignoring boys' verbal abuse of girls.

The male gaze is a form of social control where male pupils and teachers look girls up and down as sexual objects. Boys who don't participate may be labelled 'gay' - also a form of social control. 

Double standards exist when one set of moral standards is applied to one group but a different set to another group. For example, Lees (1993) found that boys boast about their own sexual exploits, but label girls' negatively for the same behaviour.

Female peer groups: policing identity - Archer found that working-class girls gain symbolic capital by performing a hyper-heterosexual idenity. Female peers police this identity and girls risk being called a 'tramp' if they fail to conform. Ringrose (2013) found working-class girls faced a tension between an idealised feminine identity (loyalty to the peer group) and a sexualissed identity (competing for boys). '**** shaming' and 'frigid shaming' are social control labels with which they police each other's identities. 

22 of 22


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Education resources »