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It is hard to imagine that it was only in 1948 that Cambridge
University accepted full membership of women into most of its
colleges. In the 1960s and 70s sociologists of education
focused on the under-achievement of females within the
educational system – Why were they not more ambitious?
Why did fewer girls than boys take high status subjects such
as maths, physics and chemistry? Why were girls less likely to
go to university?
Historically, boys outperformed girls, but this situation has
shifted. Within three generations, girls have overtaken boys
at all levels. This pattern occurs across ethnicities and is more
evident in social class with working class boys being the group
most likely to underachieve.
This raises a distinct set of sociological questions, the most
fundamental of which is why girls have achieved this
Legal and Policy Reforms
Recent reforms have opened opportunities to
women – most notably the Sex
Discrimination Act 1975, which made
gender discrimination in employment illegal.
They have also had an impact on schools, for
instance, by making illegal the practice of
filtering students into subjects by gender. This was reinforced
by the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988,
which made certain subjects mandatory for all students.
Some theorists have also argued that education now caters
more for the learning styles of girls.
The introduction of school initiatives in the late 1980s and
early 90s such as GIST (Girls into Science and
Technology) that actively encouraged the role of females
within these traditional male dominated vocational areas.
Shifting Expectations
With broadening opportunities for girls, it could also be that
more is now expected of them. The messages sent during
primary socialisation in the home, for instance, may now be
that they can achieve academically, and gain a career.
These messages are also reflected in a more aspirational
presentation of women in the media and, crucially, in the
attitudes of teachers. Sociological research from the 1950’s to
1970’s (Stanworth, 1983; Spencer, 1983) had found that girls
were marginalised in the classroom and that this was
particularly marked in ‘traditional’ subjects like the sciences
(Goddard-Spear, 1984). It is likely that these expectations of
girls have changed.
Changing Aspirations
Finally in response to wider social shifts, the aspirations of
girls may have also increased. Thus girls now may have their
sights set on university and a career – and this may translate
into increased engagement with school. Sociological research
has, in fact, charted an upward trend in the aspirations.
Many women are now looking well beyond the motherhousewife role. In the 1976 survey, Sue Sharpe interviewed
working class girls in London. She discovered that girl’s
priorities were ‘love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and
careers, more or less in that order’. When the research was
repeated in 1994, she found that the priorities had changed to
‘job, career and being able to support themselves’. Girls were
now concerned with standing on their own two feet rather
than being dependent on a man. Education was seen as a
means to financial independence
Feminist Angela McRobbie (1978) argued that females in the
late 1970s were influenced by magazines that highlighted the
importance of romance over career.
The job market
The 1970 Equal Pay Act makes it illegal to pay women less
than men for work of equal value, and the Sex Discrimination
Act outlaws sex discrimination in employment.
There are increasing job opportunities for women in the
‘service sector’ of the economy. By 2002, the number of
women in the labour force was virtually the same as men.
Working mothers provided a positive role model for their
daughters. As a result, girls were more likely to see their
future in the workplace and to value education as a means to
economic independence and careers.
Changes in the job market that include greater reliability on
technology means that male strength is no longer a
requirement within many types of manual labour.
Since the 1990s, the concern has shifted to underachieving
boys as girls have begun to out-perform boys at virtually all
levels of the education system. We must remember, however,
that the figures show the overall position – it is not the case
that every girl will do better than every boy.
However, the improvement in girls’ attainment has led some
sociologists to suggest that boys are the ‘new underachievers’.
This has triggered what Weaver-Highertower (2003) has
called the ‘boy turn’ in educational research – generating
various explanations for their lower attainment.
The Structure of the Economy
Some sociologists argue that it is impossible to understand the
lower achievement of boys without situating it in wider
contexts. They argue that the increase in opportunities and
shifts in identify found amongst girls has not been matched for
their male counterparts. This, coupled with the decline in
traditional masculine manufacturing industries in Britain has,
according to Mac an Ghaill (1994), created a ‘crisis of
masculinity’. Whilst the aspirational horizons of girls have
widened, with the rise in the number of service sector jobs,
boys have seen career opportunities become more limited.
The result is that increasing numbers of (working-class) boys
have low (or no) aspirations, seeding education as irrelevant
and retreating into anti-school sub-cultures.
Moreover, new jobs in the service sector are often part-time,
and desk-based - often requiring sensitivity and interpersonal
skills and these are more suited to the skills and lifestyles of
women. These jobs do not sit happily with the traditional
working-class masculine identities. In some families today,
females may be the primary breadwinners.
‘Laddish’ Subcultures
Some sociologists argue that the
growth of ‘laddish’ subcultures has
contributed to boys’ underachievement. Debbie Epstein
(1998) examined the way masculinity
is constructed within school. She
found that working-class boys are
likely to be harassed, labelled as
‘sissies’ and subject to homophobic
(anti-gay) verbal abuse if they appear
to be swots.
This supports Francis’ (2001) finding that boys were more
concerned than girls about being labelled by peers as swots,
because this label is more of a threat to their masculinity than
it is to girls’ femininity.
This is because in working-class culture, masculinity is
equated with being tough and doing manual work. Workingclass boys tend to reject schoolwork as it is seen as
effeminate and inferior. As a result, working-class boys tend
to reject schoolwork to avoid being called ‘gay’. As Epstein
observes ‘real boys don’t work’ – and if they do they get
The Feminisation of Education
Some commentators have argued that those changes to
education which have benefited girls have, in fact, gone
further and ‘feminised’ education, with more emphasis on
discussion, creativity and slow-and-steady work (rather than
high-stakes examination) to the detriment of boys.
According to Melanie Philips (2002) boys are finding
education less easy to engage with and that they associate
educational success with femininity (and, therefore, failure
with masculinity). This leads to an increase in anti-school
subcultures, and the bullying of those who conform. As Arnot
et al (1999) state ‘Schoolwork and academic scholarship have
been portrayed by some boys as feminised and in conflict with
Role Models
A source of role models is schools themselves. Primary
schools, in particular, are female dominated and the number
of male teachers across compulsory education is in decline.
However, female dominance of teaching is not new and is on
its own a poor explanation of changing trends. But, combined
with other processes, it might imply that education is ‘not for
Jane Clark (1996) showed that males were bombarded with
images of the macho or anti-authority stereotypes both within
and outside the media. This cultural stereotype associated
with ‘laddism’ flies in the face of the image of women as
“organiser” or woman as “carer” that young males associate
with the role of female teachers. This acts as a disincentive
for males to focus on their studies within the school
New Right theorists have highlighted the increase in singleparent families as a cause of male underachievement,
suggesting that female-led families means that boys lack a
strong male role model.
Different Attitudes of Boys and Girls
The introduction of GCSE in 1988 brought with it coursework
as a new form of assessment. Patricia Murphy and Janette
Elwood (1998) argue that this change has benefited girls
more than boys become coursework rewards girls’ aptitude for
organisation and sustained application.
Eirene Mitsos and Ken Browne (1988) support this view.
They conclude that girls are more successful in coursework
because they are more conscientious and better organised
than boys. They argue that girls:
Spend more time on their work;
Take more care with the way it is presented;
Are better meeting deadlines; and
Bring the right equipment and materials to lessons!
Mitsos and Browne argue that these factors have helped girls
to benefit from the introduction of coursework in GCSE, AS/A
level and vocational studies.
There are signs that boy’s over-confidence may blind them to
what is actually required for educational success. Research
indicates that they are surprised when they fail exams, and
tend to put failure down to bad luck rather than lack of effort:
Whereas girls are more realistic, even self-doubting, and try
that much harder in order to ensure success.
Gender Class and Ethnicity
It would be wrong to conclude that all boys are a ‘lost cause’.
In fact, the performance of both sexes has actually improved
considerably in recent years. Boys may be lagging behind
girls, but boys today are achieving more than they did in the
past. However, girls and boys of the same social class tend to
achieve fairly similar results. By contrast, pupils of the same
gender but different social classes achieved widely different
results. When taking ethnicity in account, the gender gap
amongst black Caribbean pupils is greater than any other
ethnic group, with black Caribbean girls far out performing
their male counterparts.
Some sociologists are dubious of prematurely shifting the
focus away from girls. They highlight that, whilst girls have
improved overall attainment, we must consider achievement
in individual subjects.
When examined this way we find traditional, stereotyped
patterns. Boys are over-represented in maths and scientific
subjects (with the exception of biology), whilst girls’
attainment is weighted towards communicative, creative and
caring subjects. This pattern intensifies through education,
setting girls on a career path which will earn them lower pay
and status.
Subject Choice
Table A: Candidates sitting GCE A Level exams:
By gender and subject, UK, 2007
% Male
Further Maths
% Female
All subjects
Source: adapted from Joint Council for Qualifications (2007)
What gender patterns in subject choice can you identify from
the table?
Early Socialisation – One explanation of these patterns in
subject achievement focuses on the family. It could be that
the messages received in the home socialise children with
gendered aspirations and interests.
Naima Browne and Carol Ross (1991) argue that children’s
beliefs about ‘gender domains’ are shaped by their early
experiences and the expectations of adults. By gender
domains, they mean the tasks and activities that boys and
girls see as male or female ‘territory’ and therefore as relevant
to themselves.
Can you think of any examples of gender domains in the
The School – The school might further reinforce genderspecific pathways. Early research shows that, in subjects such
as maths and science, teachers have lower expectations of
girls than boys and more recent studies (Shakeshaft, 1995)
have suggested that this persists.
Gendered Subject Images – Some sociologists have argued
that some subjects appear to be ‘packaged’ to appeal to
genders – with lessons and textbooks using gender-specific
examples, or theorists who are exclusively male.
Table B: Young People aged 16-24 in work based learning: by sex
and area of learning, England, 2005/06
% Male
% Female
Construction, planning and the built
Engineering and manufacturing technologies
Information and Communication technology
Leisure, travel and tourism
Agriculture, horticulture and animal care
Retail and commercial enterprise
Business, administration and law
Health, public services and care
All areas of Learning
Source: adapted from LSC; DfES (2007)
The structure of the economy – An important reason for
differences in subject choice is the fact that employment is
highly gendered: jobs tend to be sex-typed as ‘mens’ or
‘women’s’. Women’s jobs often involve work similar to that
performed by housewives, such as childcare and nursing.
Over half of all women’s employment falls within four
categories: clerical, secretarial, personal services and
occupations such as cleaning. By contrast, only a sixth of
male workers work in these jobs.
Gender Identity
We have seen how early socialisation into a gender identity
strongly influences pupil’s subject preferences. Here we
examine how pupils’ experience in school reinforce their
gender and sexual identities.
Verbal Abuse – What Connell calls “a rich vocabulary of
abuse” is one of the ways in which dominant gender and
sexual identities are reinforced. For example, boys use
name-calling to put girls down if they behave or dress in
certain ways. Sue Lees (1986) found that boys called
girls ‘slags’ if they appeared to be sexually available.
Similarly, Paetcher sees name-calling as helping to shape
gender identify and maintain male power. The use of
negative labels such as ‘gay’, ‘queer’ and ‘lezzie’ are
ways in which pupils ‘police’ each other’s sexual
identities. These labels often bear no resemblance to
pupils’ actual sexual behaviour but are used simply to
reinforce gender norms.
Male Peer Groups – Male peer groups also use verbal
abuse to reinforce definitions of masculinity. Mairtin
Mac an Ghaill’s (1994) study of Parnell School examines
how peer groups reproduce a range of class-based
masculine identities. For example, the working-class
‘macho lads’ were dismissive of other working-class boys
who worked hard by referring to them as ‘d***head
achievers’. By contrast the middle-class boys tried to
project an image of ‘effortless achievement’, although
some actually worked really hard ‘on the quiet’.
Teacher and discipline – Research shows that teachers
also play a part in reinforcing dominant definitions of
gender identity. Chris Haywood and Mairtin Mac an
Ghaill (1996) found that male teachers told boys off for
‘behaving like girls’ and that teachers tended to ignore
boys’ verbal abuse of girls. Sue Askew and Carol Ross
(1988) found that male teachers often have a protective
attitude towards female teachers, coming to their classes
to ‘rescue’ them, reinforcing the idea that women cannot
cope alone.
The Male Gaze – There is also a visual aspect to the
way pupils control each other’s identities. Mac an Ghaill
refers to this as the ‘male gaze’: the way male pupils and
teachers look girls up and down, seeing them as sexual
objects and making judgements about their appearance.
Feminists see double standards as an example of a
patriarchal ideology that justifies male power and devalues
women. Along with verbal abuse, the male gaze and school
discipline, double standards can be seen as a form of social
control that reinforces gender inequality by keeping females
subordinate to males.
Revision questions
1. Identify two changes in wider society that may have
contributed to girls’ improved achievement.
2. Identify three changes within the education system that
may have improved girls’ achievement.
3. Suggest three reasons for boys’ lower achievement levels.
4. Suggest two reasons why science is seen as a boys’
5. Suggest two reasons for gender differences in choice of
vocational courses.
6. Suggest one way in which male teachers may reinforce
pupil’s gender identities.