Girls get Leaving Cert results boost from ‘unconscious bias’

Gender gap under estimated marks wider than with traditional exams, SEC finds

Higher-level maths is a subject where boys typically secure more top grades than girls. This pattern was reversed under estimated grades this year. Photograph: iStock

There is evidence of “unconscious bias” in favour of girls in the estimated marks provided by schools for this year’s Leaving Cert students, according to an official analysis of grades.

A report by the State Examinations Commission (SEC) says while female students do better on average than males in exams, the gender gap was wider in school estimates compared to traditional exams.

It says this was not unexpected, given that research suggests “unconscious estimation bias” in similar contexts generally favours female students.

The report says it was not possible to correct against gender bias during its standardisation process of schools’ estimated grades this year without “violating” commitments made over how the process would be conducted.


As a result, it said the Department of Education made “strong efforts” to address this by providing guidance to schools last May on the need to remain objective and avoid preconceptions about each student’s performance.

Standardisation process

This year, Leaving Cert candidates were given a choice between receiving school-estimated accredited grades, sitting written exams or a combination of both.

The SEC’s report notes that, prior to the pandemic, female students outperformed males in traditional exams, on average, by 5.7, 5.9 and 6.5 per cent respectively in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

School estimates resulted in a wider gender gap than this, at 7.9 points in 2020 and 7.7 points in 2021.

A standardisation process – which aimed to ensure consistency in results – had the effect of marginally narrowing the gap in these school estimates to 7.6 points in 2020 and to 7.2 points in 2021.

Overall, the gender gap between females and males widened in schools’ estimated marks, with the exception of a few subjects.

Maths pattern

Higher-level maths is one of the few subjects where boys typically secure more top grades than girls.

However, this pattern was reversed under schools’ estimated grades this year, with girls narrowly outperforming boys.

By the time, the written Leaving Cert exam results were factored into the final results, boys once again narrowly overtook girls in the proportion of H1 grades awarded to candidates in higher-level maths.

Overall, a gender breakdown of the final Leaving Cert results issued on Friday confirmed girls performed better than boys across the vast majority of higher-level subjects.

Girls secured a higher proportion of top grades – H1s – in 35 out of 40 higher-level subjects.

They include subjects such as applied maths, chemistry, agricultural economics, engineering and construction studies, where boys often outperformed girls in pre-pandemic times.

Boys secured more H1s in higher-level maths and computer science. They also outperformed girls in minority languages such as Italian, Portuguese and Hungarian, though these had relatively few candidates.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent