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GCSE Results day ‘GIRLS ON TOP’: is the Future Becoming Female?

Photo credit Mimi Thian

GIRLS are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests. Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys. This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys. Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams. A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college. This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men. Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men. And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

Why do women do better than men?

One key factor has been the impact of feminist ideas. The advent of ‘second wave feminism’ in the 1970s led to success in improving the legal rights of women such as the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts of 1975. This boosted the expectations and self-esteem of women while challenging the traditional stereotypes of women’s roles as housewives, mothers and carers.

For some educationalists, greater emphasis on equality opportunities in the classroom has had an impact in enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Policies such as monitoring learning materials for sex bias to help schools meet the needs and aspirations of girls as well as diversity in the curriculum, has contribute to their success. Most teachers are sensitive about avoiding gender stereotyping in lessons and workshops.

But most social scientists like Gillian Pascal believe that growing ambition, more positive role models and more employment opportunities are key to explaining female educational success. The number of unskilled/semi-skilled ‘male’ manual type jobs has declined in the last decade whereas the rapid growth of the service –based economy has created more job opportunities for women. Young women have become more ambitious and they’re less likely to see having a home or family as their main priority in live.

Most girls growing up today have mothers working outside the home, who provide positive role models. Millennial young women now recognise that the future involves paid work, often combined with caring responsibilities. Prof Becky Francis, Director of the UCL-Institute of Education (IOE), in 2000 went further and noted that girls aged 14 to 16 had become very aspirational, seeking higher professional careers like medicine and law, rather than ‘traditional’ female jobs like admin, hairdressing or beauty therapy.

Eight years later the sociologist Angela McRobbie argue that changes in the labour market meant more women than ever before expected to achieve a degree level qualification as a prerequisite for a rewarding career – an aspiration which has replaced marriage and motherhood. For McRobbie girls’ priorities are now “job, career and being able to support themselves”. Young women have become incentivised to gain level 3-7 qualifications.

There’s evidence also to suggest that girls work harder in school or college, are better motivated and get more peer-group support.

Yet the notion that the future is becoming female has been over-stated.

The problem lies primarily with the post-16 curriculum with males and females choosing different academic subjects and vocational pathways. Women are still likely to follow arts, humanities and social science subjects at GCE A-level and Health and Social Care applied generals. Men are more likely to take scientific, computing and technological subjects both at A-level and B-tec, even though women are doing well in both.

As the psychologist Jussin (2017) notes girls low-take up of STEM-based and IT subjects has less to do with ability or discrimination than the fact that girls who excel at maths/science are just as likely to be good at humanities-based subjects. Young women she concludes are “better all -rounders, but too few of those who are good at science choose it as their specialism post-16”.

Making sense of this remains a key debate amongst educationalists and policy makers. For some it boils down to parental upbringing or “gender role socialisation”. From childhood boys and girls are encouraged to play with different toys and do different play activities.

In some households they see their parents playing different roles around the home and outside. This part of the socialisation process may encourage boys to foster more interest in technological and scientific pathways in early adulthood.

In subject counselling and careers advice and guidance, school teachers may be reflecting their own patterns of upbringing and expectations. In turn this reinforces the different experiences of boys and girls by counselling them into different subject options, according to their own gender stereotypes of suitable subjects.

Research by Kelly and Colley point out that science and science lab are still perceived to be masculine domains by many girls. Boys tend to dominate science classrooms – grabbing equipment first, answering questions aimed at girls, which all helps to undermine female confidence and dissuade them from taking these subjects from the age of 16.

Christine Skelton and her colleagues believe that young men and women may be drawn to particular subject areas due to their one idea of what is suitable for their “gender identity”. English and arts are seen as feminine subjects. Girls therefore find this subject choice re-affirms their understanding of femininity, while boys find the opposite in that it challenges their conception of masculinity.

More women than ever before are entering traditional male-dominated careers like accountancy, dentistry, medicine and law. A significant minority have made it to the top especially in the further education sector. And female graduates are earning either the same or slightly more than their male peers.

Yet to many more are failing to break through the “glass ceiling” when it comes to the top prestigious jobs in business, finance, politics and the national media. Less than a quarter of British MPs are women, one third of councillors are women and the nations’ boardrooms are still male dominated. It’s still the blokes who pull the strings and run the show.

For the writer Owen Jones Britain’s ‘Establishment’ remains monopolised by white upper-middle class men with private school and Oxbridge backgrounds. When it comes to pay women are paid less than men after they become mothers according to the independent Institute of Fiscal Studies.

It’s premature for some writers to infer that the future is becoming female. For some it’s still a ‘man’s world’ in 2018. The glass ceiling hasn’t broken, but rather has become fractured. If more women are to break in to the top jobs, central government and the business community need to re-affirm family friendly, work-life balance policies, stamp out discrimination based on pregnancy, and challenge ‘institutionalised sexism’ which still permeates a lot of the banking and corporate finance sector.

Barnaby Lenon in his book ‘Other People’s Children’ (2018) argues there needs to be more effort to increase the proportion of able young women taking A-level maths, computing or sciences. If we want to improve the supply of engineers, schools and colleges need to devise imaginative ways of motivating female students to consider this career.

Outside the educational sector, many bosses to need to wise up to the emerging evidence that many men in their thirties are becoming more ‘child centred’ and don’t want to work long hours. Unproductive ‘presenteeism’ is still a core feature of several work-places across the UK, but not in the rest of the EU

People need to work smarter not harder. Overall, a huge cultural shift is required if we’re to achieve gender equality in post-16 education, work and in the domestic sphere.

Councillor Stephen Lambert runs the social enterprise company Education4Democracy

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