When it comes to which gender has the academic edge in the classroom, a large body of research shows that girls outperform boys – but a new UK study says this doesn’t necessarily mean they are smarter.
A new report on the attainment gap between girls and boys in GCSE results by Professor Alan Smithers, published in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, found that girls not only dominated GCSE and A-level exams for nearly 40 years, but the gap between boys and girls hit a new high in 2021.
In this year’s GCSEs, 8.9% of girls received the top grade compared with 5.9% of boys. Similarly, in the A-level exams, 46.4% of girls received an A or A* grade compared with 41.7% of boys.
However, British neuroscientist Gina Rippon, who is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University, Birmingham, says the science has clearly established that there are no significant differences between the male and female brain that would account for these attainment gaps.
“Brain differences between large- and small-headed men are as great as the brain differences between the average man and woman. This is compelling evidence that the idea of brains being female or male is a myth,” Rippon said, quoting from Professor Smithers’ study.
“Not only do we internalise the expectations of others, but this can actually affect our performance and achievement.”
This raises the question of whether girls do better in school exams and assessments precisely because they are expected to do well, whereas boys absorb the message that they are not expected to do well, and this feedback loop negatively affects their results.
Rippon argues that the differences we see playing out in the academic performance of girls and boys at school are mirrored in the way that the sexes are treated in childhood.
Boys are given construction toys and encouraged to play computer games which promote spatial awareness and problem-solving, strengthening these neural pathways, whereas girls are given toys and encouraged to play games that steer them towards being more people-focused and nurturing.
In addition, “girls are encouraged to be compliant, perfectionist and neat” and praised for these behaviours. Girls are also more likely to be rewarded for being conscientious, in turn making them even more conscientious. “Along the way,” writes Rippon, “they absorb these social signals and people-pleasing behaviours become part of their ‘female’ identity.”
Takeaways for Australian schools
Loren Bridge, executive officer at the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia, said the research has some important implications for Australian single sex schools.
“While Rippon is talking about girls' generally, the difference between girls educated in single-sex schools and girls educated in co-ed schools reveals that girls from single-sex schools are equally as assertive and confident as boys, unlike their co-ed peers,” Bridge told The Educator.
“Girls' schools don't shelter girls from the inequalities of the real world, in fact, quite the opposite.”
Bridge said girls are purposefully equipped with the knowledge and skills to overcome social and cultural gender biases, and in doing so, actively break the stereotypical norms that define women in society.
“Studies have repeatedly shown that single-sex schools build girls' confidence and self-worth — they are confident about speaking up and participating in and out of the classroom, they are not compliant or quiet and their teachers have high expectations in this regard.”