Sunday, March 8 was International Women’s Day — an opportunity to reflect on global efforts toward gender equality, and the many obstacles that still remain in the way of achieving that goal.
A number of those issues are especially apparent in the world of education, where girls and women are underrepresented at all levels of STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) classes and fields, and initiatives to teach girls to code draw widespread support, even as women working in tech and gaming face repeated sexual harrassment and threats.
Disparities extend into higher levels of academia as well, with men earning more than 70 percent of Ph.D.s in fields like computer science and physics.
Yet there’s one increasingly important educational disparity that actually falls in favor of the xx chromosomes: academic performance. Not only are girls outperforming boys in school across dozens of countries, but women are enrolling in – and succeeding in and graduating from – colleges and universities at a much higher rate than men. In this case, the gender gap is actually leaving men behind.
The performance gap in both secondary and higher education began growing decades ago, but only recently has the extent of this development come to light. A report published last week by the French think tank OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) analyzed the growing achievement gaps between teenage students in 64 countries and economies and found that boys, on average, made up a disproportionate percentage of underachieving students.
Math classes, which have historically favored boys over girls, were the one area where male students retained the upper hand, though just barely – the study found that an average 15-year-old boy was about 3 months ahead of the average girl of the same age. In science, however, the results were about even – and in reading, girls dominated, outperforming boys in every single of the 64 countries included in the study. Even more striking, the gap between girls and boys was equal to about a year’s worth of classes.
Certainly, part of this gap has to do with reinforcement of historic stereotypes about which topics are “easier” for boys (math, science) versus those that favor girls (reading, literature, humanities).
Others have suggested the effect of bias, with boys being punished for behavior more often – and often more harshly – than girls. The study found that male students are more likely than their female counterparts to have to repeat a year, even if the two students demonstrate equal academic ability.
The gap extends to higher education as well, with women making up the majority of students enrolled in college and university in many countries around the world. In OECD countries, women now account for 56 percent of students enrolled in higher education – a number that is expected to rise to 58 percent by 2025. Women are also more likely than their male peers to graduate, rather than dropping out.
Of course, once they do graduate, they’re still faced with the prospect of making three-quarters as much as their male counterparts in their industry.
Still, the study highlights some important concerns about the reality that many school systems are simply exchanging one gender gap for another one. Though it’s vital that girls and women continue to make strides into fields and areas that were once “off-limits” to them, officially or unofficially, it’s also important that educational institutions don’t forget about the boys.