The girls got there earlier than the boys,” says Azizah Hossen of the day she went to her school to get her A-level results, “and they were cheering much more loudly. They were really vocalising.” If the results at King Solomon Academy in London followed the same pattern as the rest of the country, the disparity in joy would not be surprising: girls surged ahead of boys this year, in both GCSEs and A-levels.
At GCSE, girls got a grade 7 — an A, in effect — for nearly a third of the exams they sat; the figure for boys was just under a quarter. They overtook boys in maths for the first time. Boys beat girls in only two out of 40 subjects. At A-level, the girls’ lead over boys was the biggest ever in A and A* grades.
Surveying the results, Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, asked whether it was time to accept that “females are cleverer”.
It’s a hard claim to prove. Smithers says he deliberately posed it as a question and avoided the word “intelligence”, which is both massively contested and widely measured. The studies are fairly inconclusive: some show men having a slightly higher “g” (general intelligence) factor, some show no difference. But they prove nothing about innate “cleverness”, since by the time people take tests their brains have been shaped by what society expects and how much has been invested in their education.
For millennia, the tyranny of low expectations, combined with an unwillingness to invest in their education, meant that girls were doomed to be — or to pretend to be — dumber than men. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, that changed. Some combination of ideas (which drove feminism), war (which led to a shortage of male workers), contraception (which liberated women from having babies constantly) and capitalism (which required their labour) ushered women out of the home and into the workplace. The rise of the “knowledge economy” at the end of the 20th century increased the pressure to perform well at school and get into a good university in order to get a good job.
As girls responded to those rising pressures, they started to do better in school. Throwing off the shackles of low expectations has taken a while, but now girls are, on average, outperforming boys globally. In the latest PISA test that ranks 15-year-olds all over the world, girls did better than boys by 30 points in reading, where the average score was 487, and two points better than them in science; boys did five points better than girls on average in maths. Girls are beating boys not only in places that have worked hard to erase gender discrimination but also in places where discrimination is still rife. In Qatar the reading gender gap was 65 points and in the United Arab Emirates it was 57. And the disparity goes right up the educational ladder. In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s education ministry reported that the number of women in university had surpassed the number of men.
At the top of the academic world, men still prevail. They get more first-class degrees at Oxford University than women do, for instance, and scientific papers by male researchers tend to be more highly cited — the main measure of how important they are — than those by women.
Male dominance at the pinnacle of intellectual life might be the consequence of the fact that male and female intelligence is differently distributed: women bunch around the middle, while there are more men at the top end and at the bottom end of the distribution. Men, in other words, seem more likely to be brilliant or thick, though that is a dangerous thing to say these days, as Larry Summers discovered when he lost his job as president of Harvard after suggesting that the absence of women at the pinnacle of academic life might be the result of “intrinsic aptitude”. An alternative explanation is that men are clinging on to a last bastion of intellectual superiority and that it, like the others, will fall to women in time.
So why have girls outflanked boys? Perhaps, as Smithers suggests, they are just “cleverer”. Maybe, now that low expectations and failure to invest in their education have stopped holding them back, they are powering ahead to reach their natural level, just as babies, if properly fed, will achieve their natural height. And it may be that women’s natural level is higher than boys’.
There do seem to be innate differences between girls’ and boys’ cognitive abilities. In infancy, boys show more spatial awareness than girls do; as toddlers, girls have greater linguistic abilities than boys do. Those differences match later disparities in performance. But it’s hard to say much more than that about natural abilities, since social expectations and parental investment start influencing performance so early. Certainly, studying babies provides no evidence that either boys or girls are innately “cleverer”.
Boys’ underperformance has often been attributed to later “maturity”. That explanation held up better when girls were beating boys at earlier stages of education but not later ones. Now that girls get more firsts than boys do at university, it doesn’t hold water any more, unless “maturity” is generously defined to include the more orderly, risk-averse behaviour that women manifest throughout their lives.
Behaviour is probably what makes the big difference in educational achievement. “Girls work harder, boys just expect to get the grades,” says Azizah. Peer pressure contributes, she reckons. When exams were approaching, the girls would “stay late at school in a group, we’d talk only about our work. The boys were more laid back.” When boys were surrounded by their friends in class, they were less likely to participate than if they were surrounded by girls. “They think it’s a bit cool to slack off.”
James Mwendwa, 21, sees the pattern continuing at Bristol University. “The library is dominated by girls. They get up at 8, even if they’ve been to a party the night before. They’re really focused on their results. When they’re given an essay, they’ll get down to it at once. A boy, he’ll leave it till the last minute, then get an extension, and then another, and then hand in something that’s a bit rubbish.” Asked why, he shrugs: “Girls just really care about doing well.” Beatrice Fitzgerald, 17, who’s heading for Edinburgh University, reckons that it’s to do with confidence: “If you’re a boy, you don’t feel the need to prove your intelligence. Girls do, so they work hard.”
The behavioural explanation squares with current educational theory. “Learning is about embedding knowledge in the long-term memory,” says David Mansfield, a former head teacher who has run schools in Britain and China. “It requires repetition and regular testing. Boys can tell you who was in the Tottenham Hotspur line-up in 1964 because they talk obsessively about that with their mates. Girls can tell you what they were taught in class last week because they work at it.”
That girls are more diligent than boys is hardly news; it’s been that way since the Victorians were writing novels about their wayward sons and devoted daughters, and no doubt long before. Sociobiological speculation about the role of men and women in hunter-gatherer societies, and the benefits of risk-taking versus conformity, might provide an explanation, though not a testable one.
Whatever the reasons, female compliance and male indolence have an increasing impact on life chances, for these days the willingness to work within the narrow framework of an exam system and to abide by the rules of an educational institution have become the main measure of employability.
Girls’ diligence may well have boosted their results during the pandemic. Girls do especially well in coursework, which has played a larger role, while exams favour boys because they can perform well by cramming at the last minute. And the attitudes of teachers, on whose assessments this year’s results were based, may have made a difference. “Teachers like diligent pupils, and it would make sense that they would look more favourably on girls,” says Smithers. At the Harris Federation of academies, names were removed from pupils’ work before it was marked in part to counter the possibility of bias in favour of female pupils.
Girls’ success is self-reinforcing. As their performance improves, so their parents expect more of them, invest more in them, and their performance improves further. Jean Yeung Wei-Jun, a professor in Singapore, has studied this phenomenon in China, where the one-child policy kick-started a change in attitudes. Parents used to invest in boys, she says, because girls, once married, would go to live with their in-laws, while sons were required to look after parents in their old age. But when they were allowed only
one child, many parents had only a girl to invest in; so they invested in their daughters, and the girls did well. Now, says Yeung Wei-Jun, parents spend more money on their daughters’ education than they do on their sons’.
British choices in child-rearing have not, thankfully, been forced by the government, but something similar may be going on in this country. Data from the Sutton Trust, which promotes social mobility, shows that parents are more likely to pay for tutors for girls than they are for boys. Azizah says that girls at her school, which participates in a programme that provides volunteer tutors, are more likely to have tutoring from the beginning of the academic year to boost their grades. “Boys were only doing it if they were really struggling, or just close to exams.”
A growing disparity between the sexes is a problem for schools. “It’s a fraught topic,” says Nick Soar, executive principal of the Harris Federation. There have been suggestions that the curriculum has been too “feminised”, but Soar does not favour attempts to rebalance it. Other measures, he says, can help. “You have to be very good at tracking how students are doing over time and what groups are underperforming. Then you intervene, with one-to-one tutoring and additional learning at lunchtime and after school.”
It’s not as though everything is going the girls’ way, however. The behaviour that helps them get ahead at school has a downside. Girls are driven to perform well because they feel, and respond to, pressures that boys ignore. It’s not just pressure to work — it’s pressure to look good, have lots of friends, get invited to the right events and please their parents. These days, girls suffer from the tyranny of high expectations.
Living up to those expectations can be tough. That may explain why anxiety is on the rise among girls, and is at much higher levels than among boys. A study in 2016, for instance, suggested that 37 per cent of teenage girls felt acutely anxious, compared with 15 per cent of boys. That’s often put down to social media, which may also have an effect. But given that girls’ exam performance and anxiety have been rising hand-in-hand this century, it seems plausible that the two are connected. Girls feel the pressure to shine, from parents, from peers, from the world. Because they are less confident than boys, those expectations make them anxious and the anxiety drives them to perform well. Boys are more likely to shrug off the pressure, which makes them perform less well and also means they are less anxious.
The pressure that may be making girls less happy than boys in their teenage years does not necessarily pay off in the workplace. Girls, with their better qualifications, may find it easier than boys to get jobs, and during their twenties and thirties women are paid as much as men are. But a gap appears later on. Maybe that’s a hangover from more sexist times; maybe it’s to do with child-rearing; or maybe it’s to do with men’s willingness to demand more from their bosses, which springs from the same well of confidence that leads boys to slack off when girls are working.
Whatever their prospects, exam results time is a moment for girls to stop worrying and celebrate. Azizah has won a place at Sussex University to read law with social sciences. “I can’t believe it!” she yelled as she learnt of her results. “I did it! I’m going to uni! I can do anything I want!”
What the science says
In the summers of 1932 and 1947 almost every 11-year-old in Scotland took a test. It was the only effort there’s ever been to gauge the intelligence of an entire age group in a single country. “And what they found was no difference at all in the average intelligence,” says Stuart Ritchie of King’s College London.
But the boys did show more variability — there were more of them at the very high end and at the very low end. Girls were clustered more around the middle. Observations like this gave rise to the controversial “greater male variability hypothesis”. A feature of the intelligence/sex debate since Darwin, it has been offered as an explanation for why there are more males in top science and engineering positions. But linking it to brain biology quickly runs into problems. For a start, in some countries girls seem to have more variability in subjects such as mathematics, suggesting it can’t be biologically innate.
The latest large study to compare male and female brains struggled to find differences. It found that male humans have larger brains, on average, than females. But this was because males, on average, have larger bodies. “There is no ‘male brain’ and ‘female brain’,” Professor Lise Eliot of Rosalind Franklin University, who led the study, concluded.
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