The 19th of November is the International Men’s Day. This day is used worldwide to highlight issues that especially affect men, such as men’s shorter life expectancy, the high male suicide rate, and the growing educational gap between boys and girls. In my role as a core member of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, I would like to highlight the educational issues affecting boys and young men.
This year, we published a paper showing that around the world, boys’ overall performance (an average of the performance in the core disciplines mathematics, reading comprehension, and science literacy) falls behind that of girls. We found that in 70% of the countries that participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment, 15-year old boys do not perform as well as girls in schools. It is not clear why exactly this large gap between boys and girls exists. In the past, some researchers had argued that gender equality policies can explain the educational gender gap between boys and girls, but we showed that this position is not tenable. Also, most research on gender gaps seems to focus on the science and technology gap. We showed in our 2013 paper that the reading gap affecting boys is around 3x as large as the mathematics gap affecting girls. It would make sense for policy makers to make more resources available to address this latter gap, in particular given its relative size.
The PISA research focuses on core subjects (i.e., reading, mathematics, science). The situation in UK secondary school exam data looks worse when also including other school subjects. In my analysis of GCSE and A-Level data in the United Kingdom (paper forthcoming), I found that there is a very long list of subjects in which boys fall behind! This is actually not an entirely new insight, because boys’ school performance relative to girls has been dropping since the mid-eighties. Importantly, though, is that this problem has life-long consequences. For example, there is little doubt that it explains part of the growing gender gap in university enrolment. In the long run, this growing gap may well lead to other societal problems.
One of the outstanding issues is how to address these inequalities. In fact, this is not just a problem for boys and men, but also for girls and women (e.g., under-representation in STEM, something I recently commented on in the Herald and The Scotsman). Even though professionals have known about these gaps for a long time and even though much effort has been invested, there has not been much progress. Therefore, we really need a general rethinking of the approach to gender and education. For example, while there is a lot of focus on the over-representation of boys in STEM subjects, there is practically no attention for their under-representation in the social sciences. While much efforts is put into encouraging girls to become engineers, little effort is put into encouraging boys into non-traditional male career tracks (e.g., teaching or psychology). This makes no sense if you want to change the gender ratios in these fields, because we cannot solve over-representation in one area without also addressing under-representation in other areas.
The men’s day initiative is one day in the year that we can highlight these special issues. All of us in society, both men and women should have an interest in reducing these unequal educational outcomes.
Dr. Gijsbert Stoet
Reader in Psychology & Member of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change
University of Glasgow