Sex differences in education

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A world map showing countries by gender education disparity, 2010
Since the 20th century, girls have been increasingly likely to attend school and college.

Sex differences in education are a type of sex discrimination in the education system affecting both men and women during and after their educational experiences.[1]

At all levels women are achieving higher representation and success. At the post-secondary level in some countries women are earning most of the degrees awarded.


Worldwide, men are more likely to be literate, with 100 men considered literate for every 88 women. In some countries the difference is even greater; for example, in Bangladesh only 62 women are literate for every 100 men.[2]

In an OECD study of 43 developed countries, 15-year-old girls were ahead of boys in literacy skills and were more confident than boys about getting high-income jobs.[4]. In the United States, girls are significantly ahead of boys in writing ability at all levels of primary and secondary education.[3] However, boys are slightly ahead of girls in mathematics ability.[4]

Female majority[edit]

In the United States, the 2005 averages saw male to female university participants at a 43 to 57 ratio.[5] Also, in 2005-2006, women earned more Associate's, Bachelor's, and Master's degrees than men and earned 48.9% of Doctorate and 49.8% of first professional degrees.[6] This is repeated in other countries; for example, women make up 58% of admissions in the UK[7] and 60% in Iran[5]. In Canada the 15% gender gap in university participation favored women.[8]

Forms of sex discrimination in education[edit]

Sex discrimination in education is applied to women in several ways. First, many sociologists of education view the educational system as an institution of social and cultural reproduction[need quotation to verify]. The existing patterns of inequality, especially for gender inequality, are reproduced within schools through formal and informal processes.[1]

Another way the educational system discriminates towards females is through course-taking, especially in high school. This is important because course-taking represents a large gender gap in what courses males and females take, which leads to different educational and occupational paths between males and females. For example, females tend to take fewer advanced mathematical and scientific courses, thus leading them to be ill-equipped to pursue these careers in higher education. This can further be seen in technology and computer courses.[1]

School girls in Afghanistan

Also, cultural norms may also be a factor causing sex discrimination in education. For example, society suggests that women should be mothers and be responsible for the bulk of child rearing. Therefore, women feel compelled to pursue educational pathways that lead to occupations that allow for long leaves of absence, so they can be stay at home mothers.[1]

A hidden curriculum may further add to discrimination in the educational system. The concept of the hidden curriculum refers to the idea that teachers interact with and teach each of their students in a way that reinforces relations of gender, as well as race and social class.[9] For example, teachers may give more attention to boys, thus encouraging them to speak up in class and become more social. Conversely, girls may become quieter and learn that they should be passive and defer to their male classmates.[1] Students may also be socialized for their expected adult roles through the correspondence principle laid out by sociologists including Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. Girls may be encouraged to learn skills valued in female-dominated fields, while boys might learn leadership skills for male-dominated occupations. For example, as they move into the secondary and post-secondary phases of their education, boys tend to gravitate more toward STEM courses than their female classmates.[10]

Consequences of sex discrimination in education[edit]

School girl in Sri Lanka

Discrimination results in a substantial gender gap in pay towards women (.75 cents for every dollar that men in America when averaged across the population as a whole), for the most part, being in low status, sex-stereotyped occupations, which in part is due to gender differences in majors.[11] They also have to endure the main responsibilities of domestic tasks, even though their labor force participation has increased. Sex discrimination in high school and college course-taking also results in women not being prepared or qualified to pursue more prestigious, high paying occupations. Sex discrimination in education also results in women being more passive, quiet, and less assertive, due to the effects of the hidden curriculum.[1]

However, in 2005, USA Today reported that the "college gender gap" was widening; stating that fifty-seven percent of U.S. college students are female.[12] By 2010 nearly 60 per cent of bachelor's degrees in the US went to women.[13]

Since the 1990s, enrollment on university campuses across Canada has risen significantly. Most notable is the soaring rates of female participants, which has surpassed the enrollment and participation rates of their male counterparts (Christofides et al., 2006). Even in the United States, there is a significant difference in the male to female ratio in campuses across the country, where the 2005 averages saw male to female university participants at 43 to 57 (Marklein, 2005). Although it is important to note that the rates of both sexes participating in post-secondary studies is increasing, it is equally important to question why female rates are increasing more rapidly than male participation rates. Christofides, Hoy, and Yang (2006) attempt to explain the 15% male to female gap in Canadian universities with the idea of the University Premium.[14] Drolet (2007) further explains this phenomena in his article, "Minding the Gender Gap": "A university degree has a greater payback for women relative to what they could have earned if they only had a high-school diploma because men traditionally have had more options for jobs that pay well even without post-secondary education."[15]

Gender gap in literacy[edit]

Schoolboy in Barrie, Ontario. Boys have been falling behind in certain subjects of study, especially literacy.

Critics of the gender gap in education often focus on the advantage males have over females in science and math, but fail to recognize the falling behind of males to females in literacy. In fact, the latest national test scores, collected by the NAEP assessment, show that girls have met or exceeded the reading performance of boys at all age levels. The literacy gap in fourth grade is equivalent to males being developmentally two years behind the average girl in reading and writing. At the middle school level, statistics from the Educational Testing Service show that the gap between eight-grade males and females is more than six times greater than the differences in mathematical reasoning, mathematical reasoning favoring males. These findings have spanned across the globe as the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) found gender to be the most powerful predictor of performance in a study of 14 countries.[16]

Studies have attributed these disparities to several main factors. First of these is an innate difference in the brain function of males and females. Females have the advantage in their left hemisphere with speaking, reading and writing. Their right hemisphere allows females to feel empathy and to better understand and reflect on their feelings and the feelings of others. Both hemispheres are actively contributing to necessary literacy practices. On the other hand, boys use their left hemisphere to recall facts and rules and to categorize, while their right-hemisphere is used with visual-spatial and visual-motor skills, which enables them to excel in topics like geography, science, and math. Additionally hindering literacy instruction for males is an unwritten "Boy Code" society has placed on males keeping them from feeling and/or expressing their emotions. Males are therefore less likely to share opinions about literature and less likely to express to a teacher when having difficulty, feeling frustrated or just plain not understanding the material. Instead, males fidget, get distracted, receive reprimands and often quit all together.[17]

Booth, Johns, and Bruce (2004) draw attention to the facts that at both national and international levels "male students do not do as well as girls in reading and writing and appear more often in special education classes, dropout rates and are less likely to go to university".[18][19] Boys face a multitude of difficulties when it comes to literacy and the article lists some of the possible areas of literacy education where these difficulties could stem from. These include, but are not limited to, their own gender identity, social and cultural issues, religion, technology, school cultures, teaching styles, curriculum, and the failures of pre-service and in-service teaching courses.[20]

It is also important to consider two aspects of boys and literacy education as raised in the Booth article that draws from the work of Smith and Wilhelm (2002). The first is achievement. Boys typically take longer to learn than girls do, although they excel over females when it comes to "information retrieval and work-related literacy tasks".[21] It is important, therefore, for the teacher to provide the appropriate activities to highlight boys' strengths in literacy and properly support their weaknesses. Also, boys tend to read less than girls in their free time. This could play a role in the fact that girls typically "comprehend narrative and expository texts better than boys do".[21] In his book Grown Up Digital, Tapscott (2009) suggests that there are other methods to consider in order to reach boys when it comes to literacy: "Boys tend to be able to read visual images better... study from California State University (Hayword) saw test scores increase by 11 to 16% when teaching methods were changed to incorporate more images".[22] Smith and Wilhelm (2002) highlight that boys typically have a "lower estimation of their reading abilities" than girls do.[21]

Possible solutions and implementation[edit]

One attempted change made to literacy instruction has been the offering of choice in classroom gender populations. In Hamilton, Ontario, Cecil B. Stirling Elementary/Junior School offered students in grades 7 and 8, and their parents, a choice between enrolling in a boys-only, girls-only or co-ed literacy course. Single-gender classes were most popular, and although no specific studies have shown a statistical advantage to single-gender literacy classes, the overall reaction by boys was positive: "I like that there's no girls and you can't be distracted. [. . .] You get better marks and you can concentrate more."[23]

With boys-only classrooms not always being possible, it then becomes the responsibility of the literacy instructor to broaden the definition of literacy from fiction-rich literacy programs to expose students to a variety of texts including factual and nonfiction texts (magazines, informational texts, etc.) that boys are already often reading; provide interest and choice in literacy instruction; expand literacy teaching styles to more hands-on, interactive and problem-solving learning, appealing to a boy's strengths; and to provide a supportive classroom environment, sensitive to the individual learning pace of each boy and providing of a sense of competence.[16]

Other everyday practices that attempt to "close the gender gap" of literacy in the classroom can include the following:

  • Tapping into visual-spatial strengths of boys. (Filmstrips/Comics)
  • Using hands-on materials. (Websites, handouts)
  • Incorporating technology. (Computer Learning Games, Cyberhunts)
  • Allowing time for movement. (Reader's Theaters and plays, "Active" Mnemonics)
  • Allowing opportunities for competition. (Spelling Bees, Jeopardy, Hangman)
  • Choosing books that appeal to boys. ("Boy's Rack" in Classroom Library)
  • Providing male role models. (High-school Boys Tutoring Younger Boys in Reading, Reading/Speaking Guests)
  • Boys-only reading programs. (Boys-only Book Club)[17]

The gender gap and homeschooled children[edit]

Schools are not philosophical, social or cultural vacuums. The social structure of many schools do not produce adequate results for many boys. Many parents who home school their children observe that there is a smaller gender divide in academic test results. One study by the HSLDA revealed homeschooled boys (87th percentile) and girls (88th percentile) scored equally well. Racial disparity and disparity based on socioeconomic background is also less pronounced. A major factor in student achievement is whether a parent had attained a tertiary education.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Pearson, Jennifer. "Gender, Education and." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 March 2008 <>
  2. ^ "Illiteracy 'hinders world's poor'". BBC News. 9 November 2005. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  3. ^ Percentage of students attaining writing achievement levels, by grade level and selected student characteristics: 2002
  4. ^ Average mathematics scale scores of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-graders, by selected student and parent characteristics and school type: 2000, 2003, and 2005
  5. ^ Marklein, Mary Beth (19 October 2005). "College gender gap widens: 57% are women". USA Today. Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  6. ^ Historical summary of faculty, students, degrees, and finances in degree-granting institutions: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2005-06
  7. ^ Berliner, Wendy (17 May 2004). "Where have all the young men gone?". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  8. ^ Christofides, Louis N.; Hoy, Michael; Yang, Ling (2009). "The Determinants of University Participation in Canada (1977–2003)". Canadian Journal of Higher Education 39 (2): 1–24. 
  9. ^ Chapman, Amanda (15 April 2008). "Gender Bias in Education". Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  10. ^ Kevin Seifert and Rosemary Sutton. (2009) Educational Psychology 2nd Edition. "Chapter 4: Student Diversity." pp. 73 [1]
  11. ^ Jacobs, J. A. (1996). "Gender Inequality and Higher Education". Annual Review of Sociology 22: 153–85. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.22.1.153. 
  12. ^ "College gender gap widens: 57% are women". USA Today. 19 October 2005. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  13. ^ [2][dead link]
  14. ^ Christofides L., Hoy M., Yang L. (2006). Participation in Canadian Universities: The gender imbalance (1977–2005). Elsevier: Economics of Education Review, 29-2010, 400-410.
  15. ^ Droulet, D. (2007, September) Minding the Gender Gap. Retrieved from University Affairs website:
  16. ^ a b Taylor, Donna Lester. (2004). "Not just boring stories": Reconsidering the gender gap for boys. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48:4, 290-298. doi:10.1598/JAAL.48.4.2.
  17. ^ a b [3], additional text.
  18. ^ Booth D., Bruce F., Elliott-Johns S. (February 2009) Boys' Literacy Attainment: Research and related practice. Report for the 2009 Ontario Education Research Symposium. Centre for Literacy at Nipissing University. Retrieved from Ontario Ministry of Education website:
  19. ^ Martino W. (April 2008) Underachievement: Which Boys are we talking about? What Works? Research into Practice. The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. Retrieved from Ontario Ministry of Education website:
  20. ^ Pearson, Jennifer. "Gender, Education and." Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Ritzer, George (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 31 March 2008 <>
  21. ^ a b c Smith, Michael W.; Jeffrey D. Wilhelm (2002). "Reading don't fix no Chevys" : literacy in the lives of young men. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann. ISBN 0867095091. 
  22. ^ Tapscott, D. (2009) Grown Up Digital. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  23. ^ "Boy's Own Story", Reporter: Susan Ormiston, Producer: Marijka Hurko, 25 November 2003.
  24. ^ "New Study Shows Homeschoolers Excel Academically". Home School Legal Defense Association. 10 August 2009. 
  • "Federal and State Agencies Target Governors State University in Reverse Discrimination Investigation" Chicago Tribune. 5 February 2012. Retrieved 5 February 2012.

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