Why are gender gaps in attainment and pay reversed?

The Boy-Girl Gap.

This is not a new phenomenon.

However, as ever, it is so much more complicated than that.

Indeed, even in the Seventeenth Century, the out-performance of boys by girls at school was seen as noteworthy by John Locke (Chevalier et al. 2007) who observed that girls lear nt French quicker than boys learnt Latin. However, he reassured troubled parents that this was because the way the boys were learning was more rigorous and academic. Thus showing that the gap in attainment, amongst those lucky enough to have an education we would recognise today, is not new, nor is the concern, but for different reasons.

Teaching in secondary comprehensives, up to and including sixth form, it has frequently seemed at-odds to me that we have a girl-boy gap in schools, which has been shown neatly in GCSE results for many years, is reversed in the world of work.

We are all familiar with gender discrimination and its impact on the careers of women, but there are other issues at play. Why do we not see this in schools? How can we strive to reduce it in the work place? Less well-known; is the disproportionate underperformance of white, working class boys linked to the same problem? How can we tackle these?

One argument is that current high-earning, middle-aged, white men in positions of power are partially the product of the education system of their day, when 11+ results would be deliberately altered in favour of boys in some cases (Kuper & Jacobs, 2018, Mayer, 2002). However, this does not hold up to scrutiny; the out-performance of girls at school and university is not slowly eroding the pay-gap, which would be expected if that were the case. Knight & Richards (2008) argue that this is because academic careers support and promote the male-perception of success (research-based, career uninterrupted and a more head-strong attitude) which disproportionately disadvantages women and some men. Indeed, research carried out in to interrupting (Mendelberg, 2016) found that women are much more likely to be interrupted and talked-over in business meetings by men, with the dual problem of women’s contributions being passed-by, whilst the male contribution looks more effective and this is reflected in salary and social-status.

How does this translate to schools? The problem is two-fold. Although in theory inclusive, we have some GCSE options, such as Hair and Beauty, which are almost exclusively taken up by girls or boys who are comfortable in their sexuality. (Another problem - LGBT - is obviously very linked to this!) Whereas boys are more likely to take engineering. How much of this is based on actual preference, admissions patterns (Holberg, 1982) or an underlying societal attitude is difficult to work out. Indeed, Chevalier et al, (2007) also comments on this when discussing the pay-gap; if part of the pay gap is to do with societal attitudes, then legislation alone cannot change it.

Should we be trying to persuade more students to study option subjects in equal boy-girl ratios? Or even forcing this? I argue this will not solve the problem, as being gender-blind can exacerbate existing issues. Ensuring everything is offered on a completely equal platform, with inclusive language, and careful options columns, is important. If societal-norms and messages are a part of this (and there seems to be nothing I do to get my small children not to love pink and blue as per their stereotypes, despite always buying in green and yellow where I can) then schools, right down to individual teachers and practise, should be doing all they can to mitigate this; from differing role models, inclusive language, and discouraging the stereotype as girls as quiet book readers and boys as boisterous, as this encourages them to stick to their roles.

Worse than that, it can promote poor behaviour in boys as “acceptable” because it is the “norm”. How many of us have cringed when someone has said, “Boys will be boys” at our poorly behaved sons? Perhaps behaviour is different, but how much of this is because it is acceptable and allowed? Or because boys are naturally more confident? But accepting this behaviour sends the wrong messages to both boys and girls as to their weight in society. This does not mean that we should be blind to differences, but that we should use research in to these to allow for all to flourish in society. For example, acknowledging differences in preferences, such as in outdoor space arrangements, (Criado Perez, 2017) should encourage girls and none-stereotypical boys to use these spaces more effectively, raising confidence and attainment (Irschuk and Kail, 2013) rather than assuming equal access for sexes will result in equal usage.

Not only does failure in these areas potentially disadvantage girls in their careers - a general expectation that they will work harder for the same or less recognition (Criado Perez, 2017) - it also disadvantages socio-economically challenged boys, often white. Those from ethnic minorities face similar challenges to many girls in these areas, but low-expectations of boys, especially the labelling of them as “boisterous” and a “boys will be boys attitude”, encourages the idea that these characteristics are okay in boys. When we combine this with socio-economically challenged boys being statistically more likely to find school a waste of time, misbehave, and have a wide literacy gap, widest age 16 (Kuper & Jacobs, 2018) we find many boys to drop out at the age of 16. Kuper & Jacobs also show that where socio-economically challenged boys can continue in education past the age of 16, the gap closes, although it could be they did not represent the gap in the first place. Until more boys from these backgrounds continue further, we cannot know fully what damage this has been doing.

Therefore, many contexts could unwittingly be promoting a three-way gap, between socio-economically challenged boys who are likely to underachieve, girls who are likely to achieve well but less-likely to hold high-paid positions of power in their careers, and boys who either stuck at it or who weren't underprivileged who then form a disproportionately powerful position in the workforce. There are many who argue this is an in-built confidence and a perception of male as the standard human (Criado Perez, 2017) but there are things we can do to combat this:

1) As touched on earlier, there are differences in the social spaces different students tend to like to occupy, so create a range of these to suit; including some smaller, more private sitting areas, but also smaller sports areas where possible, so that those with less confidence don’t feel so exposed. Similarly, create larger entrances to these places; those happy to stand and chat at the entrance are likely to have confidence; those who do not will avoid using the facility.

2) Be aware that many childhood diagnoses of learning difficulties are based on how they present in boys. For example, in most girls, ADHD is signposted by a tendency to be less well-organised, scattered and introverted as a reflection of the lack of concentration (McGregor, 2017). These male-as-the-default-human tendencies lead to under-diagnosis in girls.

3) This one might sound insignificant, but the language we use is so important. Allowing men to be called “Sir” (unless they happen to be a Lord) whilst allowing students to call female teachers “Miss” entrenches the diminutive role of women and girls. How many students would get in to trouble for calling a male teacher “Mister”, unless it was followed by his surname? Creating a culture of “Madam” and “Sir” would help to show more respect to female teachers and teach girls to have the confidence to expect respect. I have taught in a school which insisted on “Madam” and every time a child said it, it made me happy. I almost swelled with a feeling of increased confidence and validation every time.

4) Specific literacy strategies for all, but which really help those with low reading ages, again, more likely to be boys from socio-economically challenged backgrounds. This includes emotional literacy. Strategies like Toe-to-Toe, DEAL and P4C have well documented benefits, without needing an overhaul of the curriculum.

5) School visitors are another way we can really show a range of realities for students, but I am sure that most of us have had our fill of school visitors who are top athletes? Assembles about someone who worked super hard and also got super lucky? Stories about how things can go so wrong, the unfortunate person who is the focus of the assembly slipped in to drug use, prison, or was murdered? There is nothing wrong with these per-see, but keep them to moderation. Students need to see what they really might achieve. Get in ex-students to talk about what they did next. Have a range of these, ensuring some buck the stereotypes, female doctors, straight-male beauticians; celebrate the whole range of success in your local area and or from your school, and demonstrate to all students what they really can achieve

These problems are multi-faceted and will not disappear overnight, but with more careful consideration of the little, with marginal gains, we can make it add up to a real difference

Mrs A





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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

© 2020 R.W.AITKEN