As exam results once again show a gender gap, neuroscientist Gina Rippon takes aim at the suggestion that girls are naturally superior
For pupils, it has been another year like no other. At the start of spring term, schools were closed and GCSE and A-level exams cancelled for the second year running. After the widely criticised fiasco of algorithmic grading last year, the results announced this week were decided by teachers.
The one reliable trend throughout – and, indeed, one that stretches back 40 years – has been girls’ outperformance of boys. As the proportion of GCSE entries awarded top grades hit a new high (as illustrated in the graphic below), the attainment gap saw girls pull even further ahead than boys. They were more likely to receive the top grade, with 8.9 per cent of all female entries receiving a 9, compared to 5.9 per cent for boys.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s not new: Prof Alan Smithers, the report’s author, pointed out that ever since GCSEs replaced O-levels almost four decades ago, girls had consistently outperformed boys.
When this year’s A-level results were published on Tuesday, the gender gap was likewise found to have reached its highest level in a decade. The rate of A* and A grades stood at 46.4 per cent for girls, while for boys it was 41.7 per cent.
“Girls have long been ahead in school work, but the tendency has been to explain away their superior performance,” said Prof Smithers. “When they did better in the 11+, it was said that they matured earlier. When they leapt ahead in GCSEs, it was said that it was because they worked harder. And now, with teacher assessment, the impression is that they are favoured by the teachers. Why can’t we accept it is just that girls are cleverer?”
So is he right? Is it time to accept that girls really are just somehow naturally smarter than boys? As someone who has long argued against the idea of a “male” and “female” brain, I find this idea problematic.
It’s important to ask, above all, what is meant by “cleverer”? The term itself is lazy and, I believe, unhelpful, as it sheds no light on what actually leads to girls’ superior performance.
My work as a neuroscientist has aimed to debunk the idea that females and males have different brains. There is no neuroscientific basis for the claim that the brains of girls and boys are hardwired to make them inevitably better or worse at certain tasks; to be “cleverer” – whatever that means – or less clever.
There is, on the other hand, plenty of evidence that proves the brain-changing effects our social environment and life experiences can have from infancy onwards. From a very young age, girls and boys are given different toys to play with – a restricting and potentially harmful convention the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, among others, has valiantly battled against (you can see an example of their work below). Boys are more likely to be given construction toys, which are brilliant for developing skills such as spatial awareness and problem-solving. Certain neural pathways in the brain will be strengthened the more they are used. So the brain of the boy who plays with Lego may develop in a different way from the brain of the girl who does not.
The same is true when you look at the way that “male” activities such as gaming and sport affect the brain’s development. Because of the gendered activities and interests in which society expects boys to engage, they are given the opportunity to build certain skills that girls may have less chance to develop. So why doesn’t this translate into better performance for boys come exam time?
So-called girls’ toys and activities – such as Barbie dolls and make-believe games – may instead help them learn to become more nurturing and people-focused. Both in and out of school, moreover, girls are encouraged to be compliant, perfectionist and neat. There’s a lot of evidence suggesting they are more conscientious and more likely to be rewarded for being conscientious, two facts that cannot be disentangled from each other. From primary school onwards, they are praised for these behaviours. Along the way, they absorb these social signals and people-pleasing behaviours become part of their “female” identity.
For boys, notably less so. Boys are typically more reluctant to be seen as “swots” or “teacher’s pets”. Society has told them this is not “male” behaviour.
This process starts early at school (where, incidentally, 69.5 per cent of teachers are female, rising to 82.4 per cent at primary level). I am a governor at a primary school and it’s clear that, by the age of seven or eight, girls are expected to do better in their SATS assessments. To do well, you need to be organised; to work neatly through questions, come up with answers and show your working-out. By this age, the average girl has been socially conditioned to perform well at such tasks. She will have been praised for following rules.
When it comes to boys, I have seen that teachers are often happy when they hand in any work at all – even if it’s last-minute, messily written and on a scrappy piece of paper. Their teachers’ expectations of them are lower, whether or not the teachers themselves are conscious of it. Perhaps this needs to change.
Fast forward to the GCSE years and what do we see? Are girls simply “cleverer”, or have they, over time, become better at fulfilling the requirements of the assessment system? The latter seems more likely, given what we know about the socially-influenced differences in the ways boys and girls typically engage with education.
Earlier this year, Dr Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School, published a huge meta-analysis on studies that had looked for differences between male and female brains. She found no difference in any areas of the brain, once you corrected for size (Because men are bigger on average, so are their brains). This is further compelling evidence that the idea of brains being female or male is a myth.
Other studies have shown that when you give a woman a spatial processing task and tell her “this is something people like you are good at”, she will perform it better than if you tell her “this is something people like you are bad at”; and this difference is mirrored in brain activity. In other words, not only do we internalise the expectations of others, but this can actually affect our performance and achievement.
It could be the case that a version of this has happened with GCSEs. If boys absorb the message, year after year, that typically “people like them” don’t perform as well as “people unlike them”, then there’s every chance this feedback loop could in turn affect the outcome.
But when it comes to girls’ superior GCSE performance, it’s important we don’t become complacent. They may do better at school, but they still fare worse in the workplace. Clearly something is going wrong, and it doesn’t concern their competence. It concerns gender inequality and its list of enduring symptoms: maternity discrimination, glass ceilings, unequal pay and so on.
But nor can we afford to be indifferent about boys. In congratulating girls for doing so well in their GCSEs, we must be wary of neglecting to help the boys perform well next time. We need to ask what would make underperforming students of either sex do better.
One size fits all assessment is arguably a problem. The challenge is to build a system in which neither boys nor girls end up being left behind.
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