Topic 4, Gender and Achievement


Within the past 40 years there has been a shift in patterns of achievement according to gender; with recent studies showing girls outperforming boys at GCSE and A level. This can be due to a number of factors such as the impact of the feminism movement, laws and policies promoting equality for women and social changes. However, whilst girls on average achieve more highly than they did in the past this does not mean that all girls are successful (especially those of lower social structures)

External Factors behind Girl’s Achievement?

  1. Impact of Feminism
  2. One factor that has had an impact on girl’s achievement is the increasing influence of feminism.
  3. Feminism is a social movement that strives for equal rights for all women. Which, since the 1960s has challenged stereotypical roles of women in society and improved women’s rights and self esteem to achieve in careers.
  4. For example, McRobbie studied girl’s magazines in the 1970’s and found the emphasis was on marriage. However, nowadays magazines contain messages of assertiveness and independence
  5. Feminism has made girls see their future in terms of careers and therefore has had a knock-on impact on female success in education as girls strive to do well in order to gain careers
  6. However, it does not account for the difference in achievement between working class girls and middle class.
  • Changes in the Family
  • Another factor which has had an impact on a girl’s achievement is changes within the family
  • This is because there have been major changes in structure in the past 40 years such as increase in divorce, cohabitation and lone parent families
  • An example of this is the increase in lone parent female-headed families which can lead to a girl’s determination to be able to provide within this structure
  • The changes within a family have had an impact due to promoting the independence a girl can have providing more career driven futures.
  • Changes in Female Employment
  • Changes in female employment can also have an impact on a girl’s achievement.
  • Important changes in the law have allowed women to take on a greater role within the workplace.
  • Particular policies which have benefitted women include; the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975
  • These changes in law have encouraged girls to see their future in terms
  • However, some feminists argue that the ‘glass ceiling’ is still a barrier for many women that keeps themselves out of high-level professions and managerial jobs
  • Changing Ambitions and Perceptions     
  • Sharpe’s longitudinal study to investigate changing female aspirations found that in 1974 ‘love’ and marriage were the top aspirations for girls but in 1994 jobs and a career were the top aspirations for many women
  • This is because of the influence of many factors such as positive female role models in education and the media, laws, policies and the movement of feminism
  • Evidence of this is seen within O’Connor’s recent study where 14-17-year-old girls did not see marriage and children as a major part of life plans
  • These changing ambitions have had a huge impact on girl’s attitudes towards education as they recognise that if they want a successful career, education must be taken seriously
  • However, Reay argues that working class girls perceive they have limited job opportunities so therefore have limited job aspirations where being in a couple is more attainable and offers a source of status

Internal factors that have had an impact on a girl’s achievement?

  1. Equal opportunities
  2. Feminist ideas have had a major impact on the education system, and those who run the system are now much more aware of gender issues and the importance of equality within schools
  3. This leads to the belief that boys and girls are equally capable and entitled to the same opportunities is now part of mainstream thinking
  4. Evidence of this is seen within the programmes like GIST and WISE that encourage girls into science and technology or engineering for equal opportunities in the world of work removing various barriers
  5. This shows how schools have become more meritocratic (based on equal opportunities) and girls generally worker harder to boys and therefore achieve highly (based on Boaler’s study)
  6. However, the proportion in different apprenticeships show that girls are still not equal in engineering with only 3% of apprenticeship roles in this industry being female.
  7. Role models
  8. The increasing proportion of women in positions of authority in education and schools in recent years has acted as positive role models for female pupils
  9. It can be argued that this because girls feel very comfortable in education as they surrounded by ‘motherly’ figures from the ‘feminisation’ of education particularly in primary schools
  10. An example of this is demonstrated within a study where from 1992 to 2012 the increase of female head teachers increased by 21%
  11. This shows how the increase in females in the education system offers more confidence for girls to succeed
  12. However, the gender domain within education has a negative impact on boys due to not feeling ‘at home’ within the system
  • GCSE and coursework
  • Gorard found gender difference in education remained consistent before the introduction of GCSEs and coursework in 1989 and argued this greatly benefitted girls
  • This is because of reasons such as girls often take more care in presentation, better at meeting deadlines and often spend more time on the work
  • Evidence of this is often seen in more creative subjects such as English and Art which are coursework heavy
  • These changes in assessment have played to female skills, and therefore arguably made it easier for girls to achieve
  • However recent changes in GCSE and A level have decreased the amount of coursework in subjects and represented a move back to exam-based assessments which implies male students may start achieving more highly
  • Teacher attention
  • A factor which can affected a girl’s achievement internally is teacher attention
  • This is because of French and French’s study which found the way teachers interact with female and male pupils differ where boys received more attention because they attracted more reprimands and harsher disciplinary actions
  • This is an example of labelling, with girls being labelled positively by teachers as hard workers, whereas boys are often seen by teachers as disruptive
  • This demonstrates how in turn, being labelled by teachers positively raises a girl’s achievement and confidence in education
  • Although, this has a negative effect on a boy’s achievement which is not providing equal opportunities for males and females
  • Challenging stereotypes
  • A factor which has impacted girl’s achievement is the way in which stereotypes within the curriculum have been challenged
  • This is because of the removal of stereotypes in textbooks, reading schemes and other learning materials which have helped raise confidence in girls
  • An example of this is evident within 1970-80s sexist educational material in physics showing women as frightened of such subject
  • This shows how by removing the materials which portray women as inferior within specialist subjects like physics offers more opportunities for girls to succeed in such areas
  • However, due to changing attitudes in wider society Weiner argues that educational materials have removed gender stereotypes which in turn affected female aspirations as girls are presented with positive images of what women can do
  • Selection and league tables
  • The marketisation of education has meant that schools now compete for the most desirable students, as they students will achieve the best exam results and improve position in league table
  • This impacts a girl’s achievement positively due to girls outperforming boys so therefore best schools will select more female students
  • Slee found that boys are less attractive to schools as they are more likely to have behavioural issues and seen as a liability due to boys being 4 times more likely to be excluded and will affect their position in the league tables
  • This means that girls are more likely to attend high performing schools, which increases their achievement

How does identity and class affect a girl’s achievement?

  •  Central to the idea of class affecting a girl’s achievement negatively is the concept of symbolic capital and educational capital
  • This is because symbolic capital refers to when working class girls gain status from their peer group by performing working class female identities instead of gaining educational capital where status is gained from teachers by acting like the ideal pupil
  • An example of the female identities displayed by working class girls is the hyper-heterosexual identity, where they spend a considerable amount of time, effort and money in constructing a glamourous appearance rather than spending the same amount of time on their education
  • This shows how some working-class girls aspire to gain symbolic capital from peers but in doing so lose educational capital which has a negative effect on education
  • However, Evans found within his study that many of the girls wanted to go to university and increase their earning power not just to benefit themselves but their family

Types of female identities

  1. Hyper-heterosexual feminine identities

Considerable time spent on constructing a glamourous appearance. For example, ‘sexy clothing’, makeup, fake tan and excess jewellery. They lose educational capital as teachers see them as rebellious for gaining symbolic capital and miss out on education.

  • Boyfriends

Distraction, symbolic capital

  • Successful working-class girls (Evans study)

External factors affecting boy’s achievement

  1. Boys and literacy
  2. Many sociologists argue that the gender gap in achievement is a result of a boy’s poor literacy and language skills.
  3. It can be suggested this is because parents often spend less time reading to their sons in comparison to daughters
  4. As well as this, when a boy is read to, it is often by the mother showing reading as a feminine quality
  5. As a result, it means they are less able to express themselves in lessons and convey ideas and knowledge in essays or exams explaining lower rates of success in education
  6. However, programmes such as compensatory education aims to resolve issues such as this, so therefore cannot be a major impact on the reasons why boys are falling behind in education.
  • Globalisation
  • Globalisation of the economy has resulted in a decline in masculine industries such as iron, steel and mining due to manufacturing industries relocating to take advantage of cheap labour.
  • Because of this, many jobs boys would ‘naturally’ drift into no longer exist and are replaced by more feminine work such as the service industry
  • Due to this, it creates a ‘crisis of masculinity’ that is a result of the changes in the workplace where boys do not have a clear long-term focus or goal
  • This demonstrates how due to globalisation, education loses its meaning to some boys resulting in less incentive to do well and work well as there is no long-term goal

Internal factors affecting boy’s achievement

  1. Feminisation of education
  2. Sewell argues that schools have become increasingly feminised and female centred
  3. This is because of the increase in coursework, policies and role models in the education system has meant girls are more inspired to achieve and boys have been left out
  4. An example of this are the programmes GIST and WISE, which help girls into industries such as science and engineering.
  5. This shows that changes in education may have made boys associate doing well at school as being girly and will resist in order to appear masculine resulting in poorer performance
  6. This is supported within statistics of achievement at GCSE level where boys achievement is averaged 9% lower than girls to 5 or more A* to C grade.
  • Shortage of male primary school teachers
  • The lack of strong positive role models particularly in primary education can impact a boy’s development and can contribute to male underachievement.
  • This is because with positive male role models’ boys are more likely to feel at home within the education system and have the confidence to do well
  • For example, a study conducted by YouGov saw that the majority of boys stated a male teacher made them behave better and 42% stated it made them work harder
  • Therefore, for many boy’s education appears to be perceived as a female domain
  • However, Francis found over 2/3 of 7 to 8-year olds believed gender of a teacher did not affect their learning
  • ‘Laddish’ subcultures
  • Another reason that can impact a boy’s achievement internally are laddish subcultures
  • Epstein found that boys who worked hard in school were labelled by peers as ‘sissies’ and received verbal teasing
  • This resulted in many boys turning to anti-school subculture to demonstrate clear masculine values which rejected classwork and good behaviour
  • This shows how the ‘laddishness’ is an attempt to demonstrate themselves as non-feminine’ and in doing so their performance in education will suffer.
  • However, Messerschmidt found this is less likely for white middle-class boys due to wanting a successful career so will only resort to minor misbehaving outside of education such as underaged drinking which does not affect their performance.

How gender and subject choice affect achievement?

  1. Gender role socialisation
  2. Gender role socialisation refers to the specific norms and values expected of us according to gender
  3. These are often enforced from an early age by what we wear, games we play and the behaviours encouraged by parents and teachers which can help explain differences in subject choice for girls and boys.
  4. For example, Browne and Ross argue that children are taught beliefs about gender domains which are tasks and activities that boys and girls see as male or female ‘territory’ (e.g. mending a car is male domain and caring for children is a female domain)
  5. This shows how boys feel more confident in practical subjects such as engineering due to the ‘hands on’ demand whereas girls feel more confident in health and social care to provide support
  6. This is supported by the statistics of apprenticeships where only 1% of those who are in health and social industries are male
  • Gendered subject images
  • It can be suggested that the gender image of a subject will affect which students want to choose it
  • This is because if a subject is considered feminine such as health and social care, boys are less likely to pick it to appear masculine.
  • Kelly also argues that this is seen within science, which is portrayed as a boy’s subject due to teachers more likely to be male, examples are often drawn on a boy’s interest over girls
  • This is a strong reason as when we look at single sex schools there tends to be less stereotyped subject images and students therefore make less traditional subject choices
  • Gender identity and peer pressure
  • Subject choice can be influenced by peer pressure, in order to avoid a negative response to peers
  • For example, Paechter found that girls see sport as part of the male gender domain, and therefore ‘sporty’ girls receive a label from their peers as being an unconventional female
  • As a result of the peer pressure from associating subjects with gender identity girls are likely to opt out of subjects like sport within schools
  • On the other hand, it is also evident for males. Boys perhaps opt out of subjects like dance and music because they are seen as creative and fall outside the male gender domain
  • Gendered career opportunities
  • An important reason for difference in subject choice is the fact that employment is highly gendered.
  • This is because women’s jobs often involve work similar to that performed by housewives such as childcare or nursing
  • An example of this, is seen through the fact girls often still aspire to have career which link to the emotional, caring expressive role so therefore take subjects such as Health and Social care, whilst boys are more likely to aspire high earning careers which link to the breadwinner, instrumental role and therefor take subjects like maths or physics
  • These gendered career opportunities mean that girls and boys often pick subjects which match career opportunities
  • However, in an attempt to break down gender differences in subject choice, policies such as GIST and WISE have been introduced to have a positive impact on females in industries such as maths and physics

How pupil’s gender and sexual identities affect achievement

  1. Double standards
  2. Lee identifies double standard of sexual morality, where boys boast about sexual exploits and receive praise from peers. However, girls are often called ‘slags’ if they boast about their sexual exploits receiving a negative label
  3. By radical feminists, they argue this is an example of patriarchy in education where girls are treated differently for the same behaviour
  • Teachers discipline
  • Research shows that teachers play a role in reinforcing dominant definitions of gender identity.
  • Haywood and Mac an Ghaill found male teachers told boys off for behaving like girls and often teased for not outperforming girls
  • This reinforces the patriarchal view that girls are subordinate to boys
  • Male gaze
  • The male gaze is a process where girls are judged based upon their appearance by male pupils and teachers
  • Mac an Ghaill sees this as a from of surveillance through which dominant heterosexual masculinity is enforced and femininity devalued due to girls being seen primarily as sexual objects
  • Verbal abuse
  • Sexual identities are also enforced in education, with heterosexual being promoted as ideal.
  • One way in which this idea is promoted is through verbal abuse where the identities are enforced by a ‘rich vocabulary of abuse’
  • Such as labels like gay and queer often are meant as insults enforcing the superiority of the heterosexual identity
  • Male peer groups
  • Male peer groups use verbal abuse to reinforce definitions of what it means to be masculine
  • Such as the study conducted by Willis where he found boys in an anti-school subculture often accused boys who wanted to do well in school as gay or queer
  • This enforces the view that homosexuality is negative
  • However, emergence of middle-class subcultures promotes intellectual ability which represents a shift from this subculture