For girls, it is a success story. Throughout the 20th century men dominated education. Few women were given equal attention in school, and even fewer made it to university. For most of history, women were kept out of higher education all together.
However, times have changed. Since the 1980s teachers and statisticians have witnessed a contrary trend to the old gender gap in education. Girls started to catch up with the boys. Nowadays, from kindergarten up to university, girls out-perform their male fellow students.
The 2013/14 results of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile in England show that this new gender gap is already noticeable at a very young age. According to their teachers’ assessment, only 52 percent of five-year-old boys reached a good level of development compared to 69 percent of five-year-old girls.
Already at the young age of five, girls did significantly better than boys in all assessed areas. In writing, for instance, 75 percent of the girls met the expected standard compared to only 59 percent of the boys. The results for reading and mathematics show similar differences.
Boys never seem to catch up; girls’ GCSE results are better than boys’. They achieve more A* and A grades than boys of the same age. Even at university level, women appear to be ahead. In the past few years, female applicants have clearly outnumbered males. At some universities, up to two thirds of last year’s applicants were female. “Even if the acceptance rate [to university] for men was 100 per cent and every 18-year-old man that applied was accepted for entry, the entry rate for women would still be higher than the entry rate for men.” this year’s end-of-cycle report by the University and College Admission Service (UCAS) said.
“There remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade.” Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS commented on the data.
These results prompt questions such as how women became so successful in education. Are girls just smarter? Do they study differently? Do teachers support girls better than boys? Are boys “falling behind” and is the girls’ success at the costs of boys’ achievement – as some media headlines suggest? “Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector” Mary Curnock Cook said.
However, it is not that easy, as a closer look at the data reveals. Mike Younger and Molly Warrington of the University of Cambridge have studied the gender gap in academic performance over five years and tried to answer the question of why boys lag behind and how they can be helped. In their report, they point out that the gender gap has been narrowing over the past years. Boys may have worse grades than girls and achieve lower results in various studies, but both boys and girls have been improving continuously over the past years. Indeed, the EYFS also shows that all children have improved, not only girls. Last year only 60 percent of the girls and 44 percent of the boys reached a good overall level of development.
According to Younger and Warrington, one of the reasons that, despite this overall improvement, girls are still ahead is that they managed to colonise “typical boy’s subjects” such as mathematics, natural sciences, technology and design, while boys failed to do so with literature and modern languages, subjects normally associated with women.
“The improved performances of girls in Maths and Science have not been matched by comparable improvement of boy’s performances in subjects such as Modern Languages, English and the Humanities” they said.
There is another aspect that makes female university students appear more successful than male students in the statistics. The university gender gap comes with class differences. “There are larger differences by background for young men than for young women”, the UCAS end-of-cycle report concludes. While men from advantaged backgrounds are 3.1 times more likely to enter university than men from less advantaged backgrounds, it is only 2.5 times for women.
So not only do women manage to enter “typically male” areas more quickly than men conquer “typically female” subjects, they also seem to overcome class differences better than men.
Why women overcome those obstacles easier than men has yet to be researched. Perhaps it is connected to the fact that in the past few decades girls have been continuously encouraged to pursue careers in former “male” areas.
However, despite this encouragement and their excellent achievements in such areas, women still do not seem to want to pursue those “male” careers. They might perform better than boys in schools and have higher university entry rates, but at least during university they return to acting in accordance with old gender stereotypes.
For instance, girls might have conquered “typically male” subjects in school and even out-performed boys, but at university level this interest in maths and technology seems to be lost again. Applicant numbers show that female students still opt for subjects typically associated with women instead of ‘male’ subjects such as mathematics, computing, natural sciences or technology.
In engineering and technology or computer sciences more than two thirds of first year students are still male. In areas such as social sciences, arts, languages or nursing it is still the other way around. Only business, economics, media and journalism have somewhat balanced numbers.
Unsurprisingly, the universities in which the new gender gap is most apparent are those universities specialising in modern languages, humanities or nursing – subjects that are traditionally associated with women.
Last year, more than 70 percent of first years at institutions such as the University of Arts in London, Stranmillis University College in Belfast – which has a focus on teacher training and health studies – the Institute of Education in London or Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh were female.
In contrast, at Imperial College London, an institution for technology, science and medicine, the old gender gap with a large majority of male students remains. Also, at Oxford and Cambridge entry levels of men are still slightly higher than those of women.
Recent studies do show that girls perform better than boys at all ages in school and are much more likely to go to university. Two reasons for this development are that women manage to enter “typically male” subjects while men struggle with “typically female” subjects, and that class differences are more distinctive amongst men than amongst women. Still, women do not pursue careers in “typically male” areas.
Moreover, the gender gap has been narrowing over the past years. The next success story might be about the boys.