Equality or Respect for Difference?

  • Posted on: 8 December 2016
  • By: tony

Many years ago as a student in England, I was shocked by the findings of a large national survey on high school education. In brief, the finding that shocked me was that girls did much better in school when they were in single-sex schools than in co-educational schools. The reason was very simple, the assertiveness of boys meant that girls got second crack at everything: boys habitually got to use equipment first, etc. But also boys did much better in co-educational schools than they did in single-sex schools!

So, what was good for boys was bad for girls. It is not wise to focus too much on the school issue, but better to see that there is a cultural problem in gender relations that plays out as much in school as it does in the wider world. It is to do with the socialisation of children into their culturally appropriate roles.

However, overall, and possibly because of the single-sex school for girls issue, it is now commonplace for girls and young women to surpass their male colleagues in every way.

However, by 2014 girls are consistently getting higher grades than boys in every single subject at school, including the sciences. This was the unequivocal finding from looking at 369 studies looking at the academic grades of over one million boys and girls, and covering 30 different countries. It is also the case that more girls are making it into higher education than boys: in 1994, 63% of girls and 61% of boys were getting into colleges in the US, but, by 2012, this had changed dramatically, with 71% of girls now going to colleges, but it was still only 61% of boys.

What is it that is allowing girls to excel academically? Obviously this is a very complex problem to understand, and, without hard data to indicate the numbers of boys and girls attending different types of schools, it would be very easy to develop trivial theories about this extraordinary phenomenon. I say extraordinary because allowing girls and women into education is relatively recent development, historically speaking.

Is this massive improvement in female educational success simply a consequence of the same-sex school model, or are there characteristics of girls and women, unobserved for centuries because they were excluded from schools, that predispose them to success? Or is it a combination of both, the intrinsic qualities of women in the nurturing environment of the same-sex school?

Of course there is now an enormous literature of studies looking at gender differences as a whole, and of education too, but, whatever are the reasons for this massive gender disparity in education, girls and young women are excelling. This then translates into the world of occupation, and here it is also evident that women are highly visible in the working world, and in very senior posts too. Women might have been celebrating a woman in the most powerful political job in the world, but, disappointingly, many women did not see Hilary Clinton as a viable alternative to Donald Trump.

Personally, I lean towards a theory combining both intrinsic difference and nurturing environment as the explanation for women suddenly excelling, a kind of nature-nurture confluence. For sure, learning in an environment free of all the constraints of patriarchy must be good for girls and women, and will allow them to make maximum use of their gifts. But I am also struck by the finding that young women excel after school in the co-educational framework of higher education: the number of young women in the UK that get top grades has been exceeding their male counterparts for at least a decade now.

It seems to me that this points to the importance of school, and the critical importance of keeping young women in school, and possibly keeping them in same-sex schools. And, in Zimbabwe, it seems to me that if parents, due to poverty, are forced to gamble with which of their children is likely to make it at school, think about the girls  - she is clearly the better bet!

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