The gender gap: why do boys do worse than girls at school?

New research suggests boys underperform because we expect them to

It is widely accepted that girls have stolen the march on boys when it comes to excelling in the classroom. Reports of higher grades, a keener interest in study and an all-round better attitude to education have been attributed to females. Studies of Irish children in fourth class have shown girls consistently outperforming boys in literacy. But psychology researchers in Britain have cast doubts on assumptions about why boys don’t perform as well as girls. They suggest social attitudes could play a significant role in how boys apply themselves at school.

The recent study, at the University of Kent, revealed that boys are falling behind girls because they are constantly being told they are not up to scratch. The research, which involved about 600 children aged four to 10, found that boys felt their teachers and parents did not expect them to do as well as girls, and lost their motivation or confidence as a result.

Tests showed belief in their own academic inferiority could translate into lower school grades among boys. The results, published in the Child Development journal, showed that by the time boys are seven years old they equate girls with higher achievement at school. Girls believe they are higher achievers by the time they have reached the age of four.

Bonny Hartley, a PhD student who led the study, says: "We sought to examine the age at which children develop stereotypes surrounding boys' underachievement at school, how these stereotypes can impair boys' test performance through stereotype threat, and how to counteract them.


“Our research showed that from the age of four, girls thought they were better than boys at school, believing they understood their work better, did better, were more motivated and better behaved. From the age of seven, boys rated themselves collectively as worse than girls.

“In a follow-up study,” she says, “we showed that when children were reminded of this stereotype and asked to sit a test of reading, writing and maths, boys did worse compared to a control group of similar boys who were not reminded of the stereotype.

“Girls were not affected by being reminded that they were expected to be better than boys; that is, they didn’t get better. In a second follow-up experiment, we told children that girls and boys were expected to do equally well. This made boys do better and didn’t affect girls; that is, they didn’t get worse.”

Hartley says that although previous research has focused on a variety of reasons boys might lag behind academically, this is the first to investigate the possibility that negative feedback could produce negative results.

“There are several explanations of boys’ underachievement,” says Hartley. “These have centred on alleged biological differences, different learning styles, teacher expectations, a lack of male role models and the feminisation of the classroom.

“These explanations themselves may perpetuate gender stereotypes. Many strategies and initiatives have been proposed and implemented by teachers, schools and governments in an effort to improve boys’ performance. However, they tend to be simplistic and owe more to quick fixes rather than investigation and research. Explanations often rest on shaky theoretical assumptions and shaky or even absent empirical evidence which tend to reflect crude generalisations about all boys and all girls.

“Our research represents the first systematic empirical investigation of the possibility that boys’ educational achievement is being hindered by the self-perpetuating nature of adverse stereotypes, as seen in the stereotype threat phenomenon.”

The study, A Stereotype Threat Account of Boys' Academic Underachievement, found stereotyping had a significant influence on how boys apply themselves at school. "The results show that, from a young age, children pick up gender stereotypes that are self-fulfilling, causing boys to do worse than they could and contributing to their underachievement," says Hartley.

“It also suggests we could help by reassuring children that boys and girls are expected to achieve. Our findings are consistent with a lot of research on ‘stereotype threat’, which happens when people are aware that they belong to a group that’s not expected to do well. Any practice that diffuses negative academic stereotypes could improve boys’ performance.”

Influencing factors
Rebecca Good, an educational psychologist and director of Éirim, a company that provides educational assessments, says that although it has been commonly known that girls do better than boys academically, there may be a lot of influencing factors that have little to do with intellectual ability.

“It’s certainly true that girls outperform boys in most subjects, at least in western societies, despite similar intellectual levels,” she says. “The phenomenon is most likely due to a multitude of reasons. For example, girls are generally more emotionally mature than boys and therefore more likely to act in a more responsible way towards education and the classroom, taking more care and time with their studies.

“Many studies have also shown that boys’ culture is less study-oriented than girls and they spend less time doing homework and more time watching television.”

Good says the education system may be set up in a way that is more favourable to girls. “It is widely accepted that women excel at verbal tasks while men have an advantage at spatial and mechanical tasks,” she says. “Most of our education systems are built around information being communicated through the verbal medium – teachers dictating in class and written communication in exams. So it may well be that the mode of instruction and the method of demonstrating knowledge are more favourable to females.”

The Dublin-based psychologist also says that although it was once believed that children would benefit from a teacher of the same gender, they are more likely to be influenced by culture and the society around them.

“In the 1990s there was a belief education had become ‘feminised’ because the majority of primary and secondary teachers were female, and this was suspected to confer an advantage on girls,” she says. “Although the idea is still current and provokes a demand for recruiting more male teachers to provide role models for boys, there is very little evidence to support the idea of benefit from a same-sex teacher.

“The girls/boys debate is quite dependent on the culture the students are immersed in. For example, in many African or Far Eastern countries there is more emphasis put on boys’ education because they will be the main family earner, whereas the role of the woman is seen more as caregiver and not as salary earner. In these countries or cultures it is most likely boys are ahead academically not because they are more intelligent or studious but because more emphasis is put on their schooling. In most western countries, culture has moved away from the woman being in the home and towards equality for men and women, thereby allowing women to come to the fore.”

Despite the influences of society and culture, Good believes the ambition to get ahead academically must come from within. “Learning and attainment are strongly influenced by one’s own self beliefs and mindsets,” she says. “Belief in your own ability is a powerful source of motivation, and there is evidence that differences in motivation play an important role in explaining gender differences in attainment.”

But the future may be looking up for boys. According to the Department of Education and Skills, the gap between the genders is closing, and although girls may have been doing better than boys at second level, smaller numbers are graduating from third-level.

“The gap between retention rates at second level for males and females have narrowed substantially,” says a spokesperson. “Recent reports on school completers show a slightly higher proportion of males than females progressing directly to third level. A recent report on early leavers shows a higher proportion of females than males are unaccounted for.”

The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategy explicitly refers to a “need to ensure that the curriculum reflects the reading interests of all students, including boys, and allows them to have access to a better balance of text types”. It also says that “a lack of opportunity to engage with non-literary texts and other texts in which boys tend to show interest has an adverse impact on the participation and achievement of boys”.

The department says a revised curriculum will reflect these needs. "The new junior-cycle English, which must reflect this requirement, is being finalised, and junior-cycle Irish should be available in 2014. A revised integrated language curriculum for English and Irish for primary school will also be finalised in 2014."

Achievement at primary school
English reading: a gender gap has not been a consistent feature of national assessments of reading. But in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study of 2011, which looked at performance in fourth class, girls significantly outperformed boys in Ireland, as they did in almost every country. The gender gap was largest for literary texts, where girls performed particularly well.

Mathematics: there is no gender gap in maths attainment for Irish pupils at primary level in national or international assessments. In the primary national assessments in 2009, differences in favour of boys were not statistically significant. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of 2011 found no big differences among Irish pupils in fourth class. In Ireland, and for the international average, boys and girls performed at a similar level.

Achievement at secondary school
Assessments under the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment were carried out in 2009 and 2012. These measured
15-year-olds in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. The 2009 assessments showed that, in reading, girls achieved a mean score significantly higher than the boys' score. The difference between boys and girls in Ireland is, on average, the same as the difference among OECD countries . In maths, boys outperformed girls , but the difference was not significant.