This post aims to outline some of the factors which might explain why girls outperform boys in education, focusing on factors external to the school such as changes in gender roles, the impact of feminism and women’s empowerment.
Factors explaining the gender gap
1. Changes in women’s employment
According to Social Trends (2008) the number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. There is 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 lead 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.
2. Changes in the family
The Office for National Statistics suggest that changes there have been changes in family structure: Women are more likely to take on the breadwinner role; there is now more divorce, and more lone parent families; women are more likely to remain single. This means that idea of getting a career is seen as normal by girls.
However, the increasing independence of women has lead 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.
3. Girl’s 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 there 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.
4. 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 lead to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.
5. 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.
The Limitation of external factors in explaining differential educational achievement by gender
- 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 – research on aspirations of white working class youth A sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15. Followed from school to work. Criticizes 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 jobs to go to, 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.
Evaluating the role of External Factors in Explaining the Gender Gap in Education
Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – The Role of Internal Factors
Feminist Perspectives on Family Life
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Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the claim that gender differences in educational achievement are primarily the ‘result of changes in society’
Some sociologists claim that gender differences in achievement are the result of external factors such as changes in wider society, e.g. The impact of feminist ideas and changing employment opportunities (as stated in Item A). However, this could also be an outcome of internal factors such as the education system becoming ‘feminised’, which could have impacted the performance of girls achievement, as it has risen at a faster rate at some levels and in some subjects. Some sociologists also argue that the media have exaggerated the extent and nature of any problem.
External factors such as the impact of feminism and girls’ changing ambitions could have a large influence on gender differences in educational achievement. Since the 1960’s, feminism has challenged the traditional stereotypes of a woman’s role as mother and housewife within a patriarchal family. Feminism has also raises girls’ expectations and ambitions with regard to careers and family. These changes are partly reflected in media images and messages. A good illustration of this is McRobbie’s comparison of girls magazine in the 1970’s, where they stressed the importance of marriage to the 1990’s, where it was more focused on career and independence.
Changes in the family and employment are also producing changes in girls’ ambitions. This is supported by Sue Sharpe’s research where she compared the results of interviews she carried out with girls in the 1970’s and girls in the 1990’s. In the 1970’s the girls had low aspirations and gave their priorities as love, marriage, husbands and children before careers. However, in the 1990’s girls were more likely to see their future as independent women with a career, rather than being dependent on a husband and his income.
There have been a number of major changed to the family in the last 30 years. Some of these include an increase in the divorce rate, cohabitation and an increase in the number of lone parent families (mainly female headed). These changes are affecting girls’ attitudes towards education in a number of ways as increased numbers of female-headed lone-parent families may mean more women need to take on the major ‘bread winner’ role.
This further creates a new financially independent, career-minded role model for girls. The need for good qualifications is made very clear and the girls aspirations tend to require academic effort. Becky Francis points out that boys are more likely to have career aspirations that are not only unrealistic but often require few formal qualifications, e.g. professional footballer.
Evidence suggests that girls are more likely to spend their leisure time in ways which compliment their education and contribute to educational achievements. Mitsos and Browne place considerable emphasis on reading. Women are more likely to read than men, and mothers are more likely than fathers to read to their children. Therefore girls are more likely to have same-sex role models to encourage them to read. Poor language and literacy skills are likely to affect boys’ performance across a wide range of subjects.
Whilst there are factors outside school, internal factors also impact gender differences in educational achievements hugely. According to Tony Sewell, boys fall behind in education because schools have become more ‘feminised’, as indicated in Item A. This means that feminine traits such as methodical working and attentiveness have been emphasised, which in result disadvantaged boys. The gender gap in achievement increased after the introduction of GCSEs and coursework in 1988. Mitsos and Browne argue that girls are more successful in coursework because they are better organised and more conscientious than boys.
They found that girls tend to spend more time on their work, take more care on its presentation and are better at keeping deadlines. This all helps girls to benefit from the introduction of coursework in GCSE, AS and A Level. Sewell suggests that some of the coursework should be replaced with final exams and a greater emphasis should be put on outdoor adventure in the curriculum, as he thinks boys learn differently to girls. Jo Boaler argues that equal opportunities policies such as GIST and WISE are a key factor in the improvement of girls educational performance. Schools have become more meritocratic, which means that girls in general work harder than boys and achieve more.
Teacher-pupil interactions were also identified as being very significant by Barber. For girls, feedback from teachers focused more on their work rather than their behaviour; for the boys it was the opposite. The low expectations of girls in science reinforced their own self-images; boys frequently overestimated their abilities. Research by Abraham (1995) suggests that teachers perceive boys as being more badly behaved than girls in the classroom, and as such expect bad behaviour. Teachers may also tend to be less strict with boys, giving them more leeway with deadlines and expecting a lower standard of work than they get of girls. This can allow boys to underachieve by failing to push them to achieve their potential.
Some sociologists argue that the growth of ‘laddish’ subcultures has contributed to boys’ underachievement. Mac and Ghaill examines the relationship between schooling, work, masculinity and sexuality. He identifies a particular pupil subculture, the ‘macho lads’ which could help to explain why some boys underachieve in education. Jackson found that laddish behaviour was based on the idea that it is uncool to work hard at school. She found that boys based their laddish behaviour on the dominant view of masculinity – they acted tough, messed around, disrupted lessons and saw school work as feminine.
Weiner, Arnot and David’s (1997) criticise this theory and have their own theory that the media have created a misleading moral panic which exaggerated and distorts the extent and nature of any problem. They argue that although the media are also interested in the underachievement of white, middle-class boys, they see black and working-class underachievement as a particular problem because it is likely to lead to unqualified, unemployable black and working-class men turning to crime.
In conclusion, girls are improving in achievement whereas boys are underachieving due to external factors such as: the impacts of feminism; boys poorer literacy skills, unrealistic expectations and also girls changing ambitions and perceptions. On the other hand, there are also internal factors , which in my opinion are equally as valid and important, such as: laddish subculture, teacher interaction and attention, and also positive role models in schools. However the pre occupation with failing boys diverts attention from underachieving girls.
Research by Plummer suggests that a high proportion of working class girls are failing in the school system. Cohen (1999) argues that the question is not ‘why are boys underachieving’, but ‘why boys’ underachievement has now become of concern. Her answer is that it is not just the destruction of the industrial bas of Britain; nor is it the result of pressure put on men by feminism, or by girls’ superior achievement in recent years.