Boys will be boys: are schools guilty of unconscious gender bias?

Teachers were more generous to girls than boys in this year’s Leaving Cert – but some academics say the evidence doesn’t hold up

 

Teachers rewarded girls more than boys when estimating marks for this year’s Leaving Certificate students, according to a recent report by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). And it wasn’t down to the fact that girls did better than boys, the report suggests, but partly linked to “unconscious bias” in favour of girls.

Before the pandemic, the report notes, female students did better than males in exams by, on average, 5.7, 5.9 and 6.5 per cent respectively in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The estimated grades saw the gender gap widen to 7.9 per cent in 2020 and 7.7 per cent in 2021. Overall, girls outperformed boys across a record 35 out of 40 higher-level subjects.

“While the gap had widened in successive years over the period 2017 to 2019, the increase to these levels is too great to be considered a continuation of a trend,” the report says.

But the SEC’s finding has been questioned by some academics with expertise in gender and education.

“The SEC asserted that unconscious bias was at work but they presented no evidence on this,” says Pat O’Connor, professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick.

“We know from Economic and Social Research Institute studies that girls work and study harder than boys do. The SEC has made a leap in concluding that unconscious bias was the cause. They appear to have disregarded the possibility that boys are doing worse because they sometimes live up to the stereotype of being disruptive and unfocused while still living in a society where those in positions of power are mostly men.”

SEC data from the past few years shows that girls in single-sex schools, on average, have the best academic performance, followed by girls in co-educational schools, boys in single-sex schools and then boys in co-educational schools.

But there is also a substantial body of academic research showing better social and emotional outcomes for students in co-educational settings, and that girls in single-sex schools experience greater stress around exams.

While research points towards broad generalities, the personality, learning environment and home environment of an individual student may be a better indicator of what is best for them.

Social class

Dympna Devine, professor of education at University College Dublin (UCD), says that the gap in educational attainment at the end of secondary exams is lesser in Ireland than in comparable countries.

“This may be due to investment and learning support and in supporting children with additional needs, although there remain concerns about addressing the needs of high-achieving children in the system. Underachievement of boys is mediated hugely by social class – specifically, boys in poorer families, on average.”

Devine also points out that single-sex schools are less likely to be disadvantaged schools and more likely to be fee-paying or in wealthier areas, emphasising that class is a prominent factor at play.

“There is also no doubt that girls tend to be more consistent in applying themselves,” she says.

“Research, including a study carried out with the then Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2017, shows that boys get more attention for indiscipline and misbehaviour, while girls tend to be more stressed about their exams than boys. This is linked to girls wanting to achieve highly in the system and, while we need more research, it may be that teachers marked their female students [higher] because they saw them more consistently applying themselves over the years. I would not say it is because of unconscious bias.”

The Childrens’ Lives study, carried out by Devine and fellow researchers at the UCD school of education, also indicated that school closures during Covid were harder on boys than on girls because, notwithstanding social inequities and lack of access to technology and broadband in poorer or rural houses, girls were better able to apply themselves to remote learning.

Compliant

Delma Byrne, associate professor of education and sociology at NUI Maynooth, says that girls have been doing better, on average, than boys in the Leaving Cert for some time, but that there are differences in male and female attainment over the life course.

“To be academically successful in the Irish context, with a high-stakes, points-driven system, it can help to be compliant and do what the teacher needs you to do,” Byrne says. “I’d be concerned that females doing well is being framed as a disadvantage to males, particularly after so much domination in Irish society by men. Perhaps the work girls put in has been hidden by the dominant exam system to date, and perhaps boys have done better before because the system has suited cramming.”

All three academics said that the concern over the relative underperformance of boys was being raised when men continue to dominate at senior professional level and earn more over a lifetime than women do.

“Male-dominated workplaces see the criteria for advancement favour men,” says O’Connor. “Women have a one-in-13 chance of reaching a professorship, compared to one in five for men. Across universities, that figure is consistent for men, but it varies from one in nine to one in 23 for women, indicating that it is not about women choosing to [care for children]. Boys and men unconsciously absorb that societal power structures favour them, so they think they should have a better chance without doing the work that girls and women need to do. And yet we never hear, in this conversation, the idea that if we want boys to perform better in school, they should take a leaf out of the girls’ book and apply themselves; I wonder how well it would go down if we told boys they should be more like girls in this respect.”

Your views: why do women do better in school – but men dominate at work?

“I’ve been a guidance counsellor in a mixed school and I’m now in a boys’ school. In my experience – and speaking very broadly – boys are not as emotionally literate as girls, and can be less comfortable admitting they need help. With growing work in schools to promote wellbeing and mental health, that is changing. But if you’re not dealing with your issues, that will naturally affect other areas of your life, including study. Internalising issues means the stress comes out in the wrong direction. It’s like trying to hold a ball underwater: your arms eventually get tired and the ball breaks the surface in an unpredictable direction.

“Girls also mature a little faster than boys, speaking generally, and boys can be more likely to leave things until the last minute and cram. But we know that greater exposure to career guidance at a younger age – and it now happens as part of the junior cycle – helps students to be focused on careers and outcomes at a younger age.”

Neil McCann, guidance counsellor, St Vincent’s Secondary School, Glasnevin, Dublin 11

“People like to hire similar to them. I benefited when I had female leadership and it was negative when I had male leadership. The ones that do most of the hiring are men.”

Monica GW, via Twitter

“Maybe women just don’t want these kind of jobs.”

Michelle C, via Twitter

“Being quiet and unobtrusive and just listening is helpful in a classroom. At work, it makes you invisible at best [where] if you’re not jumping up to say look how well I am performing, and loudly take credit for what you do, nobody will notice.”

@AiasIRL, via Twitter