Gender achievement gap

November 1, 2023

Photograph by RDNE Stock project at Pexels

Alessia Georgiou examines gendered educational challenges; from the flourishing of female academia to crises of masculinity

With major gender differences in subject choices and girls predominantly obtaining higher grades than boys, it’s vital that schools acknowledge these inequalities and implement strategies to tackle them.

In this article, I use the terms ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ but I would like to note that these terms are binary and not fully inclusive of the diverse spectrum of gender identities. However, for the purpose of this conversation I’m using these terms as a starting point but by no means do I want to exclude non-binary or gender-fluid people.

To begin with, girls usually overachieve in comparison to boys. In 2014 the Guardian reported 70% of girls achieved A star – C in their GCSEs, compared to 54% of boys. In addition, girls tend to achieve better results in national tests such as SATs scoring 10% higher. Also a report published in Oxford Review of Economic Policy 2021, showed there has been a significant increase in girls’ academic achievements in recent decades, particularly in higher education.

But why is this? According to sociologists, it is the result of external and internal factors. For example, girls’ changing ambitions and attitudes. In Sue Sharpe’s book ‘Just like a girl: How girls learn to be women’ she examines the difference in girls’ priorities over time. In the 1970’s, around 80% of girls aspired to get married. Their priorities were laid out in order of ‘love, marriage, husband, children’, with ‘job and career’ being last. However, by the 1990s, the number of girls who prioritised marriage had dropped to 45%; their goals were gravitating towards career and independence.

The collapse of a traditional male breadwinner brought by poor job prospects has led to a crisis in masculinity

Becky Francis added to Sharpe’s findings demonstrating that now, girls have higher career aspirations. Rather than pursuing traditionally female occupations like hairdressing or teaching, girls now want to become doctors or solicitors. According to a report on the Statista platform, 2023, the percentage of women in employment has increased, since 1971, from 53% to 72%.

Women are breaking through the glass ceiling and ultimately have more incentive to see their future in terms of paid work. Therefore, they need high educational qualifications and hence are more inspired to achieve in school.

In contrast, sociologists have also examined factors contributing to boys’ underachievement in education. For example, the decline of traditional male employment. According to Mitsos and Browne, since the 1980s, there has been a decline in ‘masculine’ industries such as shipbuilding, mining and manufacturing in the UK.

Ultimately, this can lead to misbehaviour, as boys then attempt to reconstruct their self-image through ‘lad’ culture. This breeds a fatalistic attitude. Many boys now believe they have so few job prospects that they cease trying to get qualifications.

“The collapse of a traditional male breadwinner brought by poor job prospects has led to a crisis in masculinity. This identity crisis has been reflected in schools, where boys don’t see the point in trying to achieve high when their future is seeming bleak…” Mac an Ghaill.

Peer pressure can have a profound influence on boys and girls to conform to different subjects

Subject choice
Girls and boys, however, often follow different routes in their choice of subjects.

Boys typically veer towards business studies or graphics, whilst girls steer toward textiles and food technologies. In higher education, boys often choose subjects like maths and physics, while girls predominately choose modern languages, English and psychology. In vocational subjects, gender segregation is at its greatest, with only 1% of construction apprentices being female, reported by the Smith Institute.

But why is this? For starters, subjects are often portrayed as either masculine or feminine. In her feminist paper Joan Kelly argues that science is mainly taught by men, with textbooks generally using boys’ interests as examples and boys dominate equipment and apparatus. In turn, science has masculine connotations, perpetuating this gendered subject gap.

Peer pressure can have a profound influence on boys and girls to conform to different subjects. For example, boys often opt out of music because of negative peer response. In her book Carrie Paetcher reveals that girls who choose sport must contend with accusations from boys of being ‘butch’.

Studies have found that male teachers uphold gender norms by telling boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and ignoring boys verbal abuse of girls

These stereotypes can also be reinforced by teachers. One study by Haywood and Mac an Ghaill found that male teachers uphold gender norms by telling boys off for ‘behaving like girls’, and ignoring boys’ verbal abuse of girls. This conduct creates a subculture of negative stereotypes and ideologies within education, affecting the subjects boys and girls go on to study.

Schools should bring in speakers who make sure boys and girls feel included when choosing subjects. For example, as maths and economics are usually taken up by boys, schools could bring in more female speakers who specialise in these fields.

According to a report by the National Center for Children and Families in the US, teachers should tackle peer pressure by actively listening to their students’ concerns. This can be a source of support for those who feel embarrassed to choose gender specific subjects and help reassure pupils that school can be a safe and judgement-free zone.

Another inequality that schools should fix is the lack of male role models. The Department of Education reported that in 2021 only 24% of primary school teachers were male.

The gender stereotypes and expectations we’re burdened with at school contribute to feeling frustrated, restricted, and confused

Teachers must work towards removing internalised gender stereotypes; a study by US psychology professor, Steven Spencer shows that teachers spend more time engaging with boys than girls. Another study by educationalist, Becky Francis suggested that boys getting more attention has a negative effect as they receive more reprimands, are disciplined more harshly and feel picked on by teachers. Francis argues that this is because teachers have lower expectations of boys.

From personal experience, I can confirm that all these gender stereotypes and expectations we’re burdened with at school sadly contribute to feeling frustrated, restricted and confused. This makes it much harder to discover our true passions and aspirations in life. And from speaking to the boys I know they feel similarly discouraged. Recent research shows that both boys and girls who resist restrictive gender roles do better at school.

Educators should aim to create an equal environment where all genders feel included and heard. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have our own internalised stereotypes. However, it is about breaking down traditional gender norms and fostering a more inclusive setting that opens up a broader range of possibilities for everyone.


Alessia is studying A-level English literature, sociology and psychology. She has an interest in creative and informational writing, debates, discussing societal topics and travel. She loves to express these through producing articles for Exposure.

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