Book/Report Chapter

Gender and Education

May 30, 2007

International Studies in Educational Inequality, Theory and Policy, Volume One - Educational Inequality: Persistence and Change

Recent decades have seen female educational attainment and achievement levels equal, or surpass, those of their male counterparts in many developed countries. In spite of these changes, persistent gender differences are evident in the kinds of subjects and courses taken by young women and men within secondary and tertiary education.

This chapter outlines some of the main explanations advanced for these patterns. Gender differences in educational achievement have been attributed to broader social and labour market factors, the approach taken to student assessment, the feminisation of teaching, the pattern of classroom interaction, the ‘laddish’ culture among boys and the gender mix of the school. Gender differences in field of study have been variously attributed to biological factors, gender segregation within the labour market, the nature of the educational system, whether the school is coeducational or single-sex, and the construction of particular spheres of knowledge as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

While considerable advances have been made in our understanding of the processes shaping gender differentiation in educational outcomes, two areas would appear to provide fruitful directions for future research. Firstly, although some commentators posit a near-universality in gender differences, it is clear that there is cross-national variation in the kind of subjects taken by young women and men and in how they fare in examinations. To date, however, few attempts have been made to explore the way in which different educational systems can impact on these patterns. Secondly, there would appear to be scope for achieving greater insight into the dynamics of social and educational change. This would require more detailed accounts of the way in which some fields of study have become feminised over time and of the processes shaping the emergence of any ‘gender gap’ in achievement. Some accounts of gender and education can tend to a post-hoc explanation of differences; for example, boys’ dominance of classroom interaction was used as an  explanation for female educational disadvantage at an earlier time-point but this pattern is still evident within classrooms even though the policy focus is now on male underachievement. Greater attention to variation in gender differences in educational outcomes across societies and over time would build upon the valuable work carried out to date on the construction of gender in specific social settings.