Sex differences in academic achievement are not related to political, economic or social equality

New research has revealed that girls lead boys in educational achievement in 70% of countries, regardless of levels of national gender equality.

Even in countries where women’s liberties are severely restricted, girls are shown to be outperforming boys in mathematics, reading and science literacy subjects by age 15.

The research, conducted by psychologists at the universities of Glasgow and Missouri, looked at the educational achievement levels of 1.5 million 15 year olds from around the world using Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data taken between 2000 and 2010.

The findings, which are published in the journal ‘Intelligence’, show that countries with high levels of social, political and economic equality still experience gender differences in academic achievement. Paradoxically, some of the countries known for relatively low gender equality ratings, such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are those where the educational achievement gap is relatively large, in favour of girls.

When considering combined achievements in mathematics, reading and science, boys fall behind in 70% of countries, whereas there are only three countries/regions (4% of those included in the survey) where boys outperform girls (namely Colombia, Costa Rica, and the Indian state Himachal Pradesh). The United Kingdom and United States belonged to the countries where no (statistically significant) sex difference in combined achievement was found.

The achievement disparity between boys and girls is most in evidence at the lowest levels of achievement. The gap however closes, and is sometimes reversed, among the very highest achievers in more economically developed countries.

Researchers claim that these findings show that policy makers need to look beyond setting targets for gender equality as a way of reducing gender gaps in school achievement.

Dr Gijsbert Stoet, Reader in Psychology at the University of Glasgow, who led the study, said: “The results of this study show that a commitment towards gender equality on its own is not enough to close the achievement gaps in global education.

“At the moment we see that, with the exception of high-achievers, boys have poorer educational outcomes than girls around the world, independent of social equality indicators. What’s more is that this gap in not reducing. If policy makers are seriously concerned about gender equality in education, this ought to be their top priority. That it is not is probably fuelled by a lack of public understanding of the distribution of skills which we have highlighted in this and previous studies. For example, listening to many news stories in the media, one can easily get the idea that girls around the world are falling behind boys, in particular in countries with known gender inequality. The reality is quite different in the many countries participating in PISA, which many may find surprising.

“Of course we understand that there are many reasons beyond education attainment to strive for gender equality within societies that are not measured in this study. Although it is vital that we promote gender equality in schools we also need to make sure that we’re doing more to understand why these gaps, especially the poor achievement of boys, in educational attainment persist and what other policies we can develop to close them.”

Researchers believe that PISA scores may also help define why fewer girls, despite being educationally stronger than boys at 15 years, go on to study STEM subject at university.

David Geary, Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri, said: “As well as being stronger in STEM subjects, the PISA data show that a greater percentage of girls have proportionally better reading achievement compared with mathematics achievement, with boys showing the opposite pattern.

The tilt in skills influences later choice of college major and occupation so those who are better at language related skills than maths tend towards language-based professions, such as law instead of computer science, even women with very high maths skills. The sex differences we see in STEM industries today is related in part to this tilt.” 

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Notes for editors:

  • Gender equality indexes referenced in the study include the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report and the United Nation’s Human Development Report.

First published: 21 January 2015

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