Gender imbalances in the classroom – and all the way up

Boys underperform in school but women get fewer professorships in academia. How do we tackle the factors that skew how children and adults fare through their studies?

Our education system is askew. Boys are underperforming in school. Girls are making big strides and achievements in education, but women are massively under-represented in senior work roles and in third-level academia. Men aged 35-64 have a particularly poor educational record (see panel).

What’s going on? Is the gender imbalance in our education system particularly unusual?

About one-third of schools in Ireland are single-sex, a situation that is almost unique in Europe. The relative success of girls, however, has happened all over the world, since efforts to educate girls intensified about 150 years ago.

Historically, the influence of the religious orders in Ireland meant girls received a good education, albeit with little opportunity to then develop a career or an independent income. Aside from that, not every child considers themselves within the male/female binary, with a small but growing number struggling with their gender identity.


‘Bunkum’, but the attitude lingers

In secondary schools, girls are leaving boys in the dust, outperforming them in 50 out of 59 Leaving Cert papers last year.

However, boys are still doing slightly better at maths ,where 73.3 per cent got an A, B or C, compared with 71.7 per cent of girls. This is a historical legacy, says Muiris O'Connor, now head of policy and strategic planning at the Higher Education Authority.

In 2007, O'Connor wrote Sé Sí: Gender in Irish Education for the Department of Education. "The prejudices about what girls could or could not do, or were or were not capable of, were deeply ingrained," he says. "Maths was traditionally seen as something for boys. Girls were trained to believe that they were not capable. It's bunkum. But the attitude has lingered, and reverberated through the education that teachers themselves received."

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, “arithmetic: girls only” was a subject, as was “elementary maths for girls”. But girls are now taking, in greater number, subjects that were traditionally seen as “male”, including chemistry, physics and applied maths. Girls are also doing better in languages. Boys have a higher failure rate than girls for almost all subjects.

Girls are still more likely to take home economics, French, Spanish and business studies, while boys are, if anything, drifting away from home economics.

The new junior cycle was designed partly in response to the problem of boys – particularly working-class boys – disengaging from the education system and either dropping out of school altogether or underperforming in exams. The new HPat exam for medical school entry was also, in part, because of the increasing dominance of women in third-level medicine, but this has proven controversial, with some opponents arguing the new system actually militates against women.

Girls are still winning more college places but boys dominate engineering. Once boys do go to college, however, their academic performance begins to match that of girls. And this is where males start taking over, ultimately dominating the senior ranks of academia.

Single-sex versus co-ed

While there are mixed findings on the relative academic merits of single-sex versus co-educational schools, there is more reliable evidence that co-education better prepares young people socially.

One line of thought on why males aren’t doing as well at school puts it down to boys being taught predominantly by female teachers, especially in primary schools. Others suggest that learning styles differ by gender, but this is disputed. Some research points to a laddish culture where boys don’t take school as seriously as girls.

In a recent study she co-authored, Prof Dympna Devine, head of the school of education at University College Dublin, found the gender of the students being taught – rather than the gender of the teachers – may be particularly important in shaping teaching practices in the classroom. "This was most evident in the significant differences observed between all-boys schools and co-education and all-girls schools," she says.

Teachers in mixed and girls’ schools, the research showed, used better teaching methods, with a greater emphasis on active learning, challenging and higher-order teaching, and positive learning climates. With this in mind, is it any wonder that boys don’t do as well?

Devine urges caution, stressing that social class and ethnicity also influence teaching styles. That said, the study identified clear stereotyping among teachers in how they spoke about boys and girls.

“Girls were invariably categorised as calm, pliable, timid, mature, focused, ‘tale tellers’ and easier to discipline,” says Devine. “Boys, by contrast, were spoken of as lively, boisterous, energetic, competitive, show-offs, spontaneous and potentially disruptive.”

Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at the UCD school of social justice, says Irish schools should include organised education about gender from primary school onwards. “How can we advance in terms of gender understanding or in terms of equality more generally, without organised social scientific education? It is a big lacuna.” The large number of single-sex schools in Ireland gives an added impetus.

Despite their academic dominance, women still earn less than men in most areas of employment and have poorer career progression.

Women dominate the primary teaching profession. In the Republic of Ireland, 27,924 members (86 per cent) of the primary teachers’ union, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), were female, while 4,677 (14 per cent) were male. As of December 2012, however, 65 per cent of primary school principals are female.

On average, male primary teachers earn more than their female counterparts. The most recent data from the Department of Education showed women on an average salary of €53,766.75 in 2012, while men earned €58,040.59.

In 2014, 68 per cent of principals appointed in secondary schools were men, even though women comprise 70 per cent of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland's (ASTI) membership. "The role [of principal] is overloaded and does not contribute to a work-life balance," says Gemma Tuffy, speaking for the ASTI. "In this context, the moratorium on posts of responsibility, which has increased the duties and responsibilities of principals, is particularly significant."

Discrimination at third level

Last December, the Equality Tribunal ruled NUI Galway lecturer Micheline Sheehy Skeffington was discriminated against when she applied for a senior lectureship in 2009. Shortly afterwards, the HEA released a report that showed that, while women hold half of all lecturing posts, they account for just 14-20 per cent of professors in the State's seven universities. The presidents of Ireland's seven universities are all male.

The unions representing third-level staff are fuming. Joan Donegan, deputy general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, has called for more co-ordination between universities to address the obstacles to women's progress. Her research suggests that, with the notable exception of Sheehy Skeffington, women have been reluctant to take cases against their employers.

Many researchers on fixed-term contracts are afraid to raise their heads above the parapet. Women don’t just face additional challenges in balancing their work life with a caring role they are often expected to fulfil; the Equality Tribunal’s findings also suggest their applications are treated differently and that their male competitors are favoured for promotion. And many colleges introduced anonymous marking because lecturers were giving female candidates significantly lower marks in exams.

“Gender inequality is pervasive at third level, not only among academics but also among senior administrators: the bursars and those who control the money are overwhelmingly male,” says Prof Lynch of UCD. “Women have been outperforming men academically for over a century, but if this doesn’t translate into the labour market and into employment advantage, then what difference does it make?”

Despite the various gender imbalances in the system, a dedicated gender equality unit of the Department of Education closed over a decade ago, as did a similar unit at University College Cork.

Change is on the horizon, with a new European Union initiative, Athena Swan, aimed at increasing the progress of women in academia. It's backed by the HEA, and supported by an awards scheme. It's a step in the right direction. But with such marked gender differences in the Irish education – from the poor performance of boys through to the obstacles facing women – there's a lot more work to be done.

Twitter @petermcguireie


The last census showed 14 per cent of men aged 35-64 had only completed primary schooling or had no formal education at all; 18 per cent had only lower-secondary education; and 22 per cent had finished their formal education after secondary school. For women, the corresponding figures are higher in all cases.

In the adult and community education sector, male participation is particularly low. Adult education is non-compulsory education that adults choose for themselves, sometimes leading to an award and sometimes for interest only, while community education generally targets those who may have missed out on educational opportunities when younger. But, it seems, they’re not reaching those who need them most.

Michael Hallissy chairs Dublin 8 Community Education Centre (D8CEC). "Across all age groups, men in Ireland have lower levels of educational attainment than women," he says. "Ironically, however, it has always been far more difficult to attract men into second-chance education than women. In adult learning centres throughout Ireland, it is the norm to have nine or 10 female learners for every man. This challenge of encouraging men to participate in second-chance education became ever more pressing with the recession, when thousands of men who left school early to take up low-skilled, manual jobs suddenly found themselves unemployed."

D8CEC is bucking the trend by having a 50-50 gender balance, with a consistently high number of male learners. “We started small,” says Hallissy. “We have a range of practical courses, including ICT skills and maths, which male learners tend to favour. We have male tutors. We promote a welcoming atmosphere where members of the local community are encouraged to drop in, as much for the social environment as the learning opportunities.”

Word of mouth has, perhaps, been the biggest driver of men into D8CEC. Chris Kavanagh (43) worked in the building trade for most of his life. He has taken a number of courses, including ICT and maths, since the property bust. "I felt that I needed to retrain and upskill. I've loved it: the courses are really interesting and the teachers are great. It's flexible to allow part-time work, and I've made great friends. Men sometimes feel that they can't go back to education, or it's too late, but it never is."