Females Brainer than Males?
Traditionally, it was thought that males outperform females in subjects such as mathematics and science. However, there is now much evidence for a diminishing gender gap in educational achievement in many developed countries.
In the UK, females have in fact been shown to outperform males at all levels of the school system, attaining more school and post-school qualifications, and attending university in higher numbers (Mullis et al, 2003). Indeed, there are contrasts between male and females’ performance in certain areas, which can then translate into educational outcome and account for apparent differences. But is it fair to say one gender performs better than the other? When will the battle of the sexes ever be put to rest?
A True Reflection of Gender?
The direction of sex differences can change over time; in 2009, female students were documented as achieving more 1st Class degrees than male students for the first time. However, these figures were absolute rather than relative, and coincided with an increase of females taking degree courses in the first place. Pirie (2001) argued that such a female dominated emergence was due to a ‘feminising’ of exams, with an increase of coursework rather than unseen examinations alone, thus benefiting the girls. Similarly, Mellanby, Martin & O’Doherty (2000) concluded that the nature of the academic assessment system is likely to be largely responsible for any gender gaps.
Another factor to consider is in terms of brain function. During tasks such as mental rotation (important in subjects such as mathematics), there are clear gender differences in patterns of activation. This suggests that males and females may utilise contrasting strategies in approaching problems, which no doubt expresses itself as one sex being better than the other in specific areas.
Gender Theory & Stereotype Threat
According to gender theory, males and females enter the educational system with different sets of behaviours, attitudes and values. These may be in line with cultural norms of masculinity and femininity, thus impacting on academic performance.
Stereotype threat research examines how activating culturally shared negative stereotypes reduces performance of stereotyped group members. Making people aware of negative stereotypes relevant to a social group to which they belong impairs performance in the stereotyped domain. So for example, there is a pervasive stereotype that women are bad at mathematics despite the fact that many view themselves as competent, capable and able to achieve! This causes a cognitive imbalance because without activation of the female social identity, they expect to be proficient in mathematics. A cascade of psychological processes can then occur, leading to anxiety and reducing the working memory resources required to solve difficult maths problems. It’s not all doom and gloom – such stereotypes exist across many areas. But by presenting positive self-relevant stereotypes, gender identity and working memory deficits can be inhibited!
So what does this all mean for gender differences in academic outcome?
Despite gender issues in education seeming to pop up all over the place, there is of course by no means one ‘more intelligent’ gender. Differences in academic outcome vary over time, culture and also according to the measure used to assess performance!
Environmental influences are also a clear contributor – if females for example feel that they are not ‘supposed’ to be good at a certain subject due to gender stereotyping in school and wider society, they may take up a very different approach to certain tasks compared to males. Important messages then to be taken from such research into gender differences are these:
- Positive reinforcement is required for females taking up ‘male’ dominated subjects (such as Engineering); or males taking up ‘female’ dominated subjects (such as Psychology).
- The format of testing is vital in accounting for gender differences. It is impossible to create a one-size-fits-all in education, but at the same time it is clear that more flexibility and bespoke approaches are required in order to allow the potential of various groups to really flourish.
Mellanby, J., Martin, M., O’Doherty, J. (2000) The ‘gender gap’ in final examination results at Oxford University. British Journal of Psychology. 91 (3), 377-390
Mullis, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Gonzalez, E.J., Kennedy, A.M. (2003). PIRLS 2001 international report: IEA’s study of reading literacy achievement in primary schools. Chestnut Hilll, MA: Boston College In: Gibb, SJ., Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, L.J. (2008) Gender differences in educational achievement to age 25. Australian Journal of Education, Vol. 52, 63-80
Pirie, M. (2001) How exams are fixed in favour of girls, The Spectator, pp. 12-13