Gender and Educational Achievement: Part Two

Gender and Educational Achievement: Part 2 of 5:  Part Two

Explaining Female Relative Educational Under-Achievement in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s

Part Two: Explaining Trends in the Relationship between Gender and Educational Achievement.


 Explaining the Relative Educational Underachievement of Female Students up to the 1980s.

As stated above female students outperformed male students in 16+ examinations from the late 1960s onwards but could nevertheless be said to be "under-achieving" at GCE Advanced Level so that they were also less likely than males to enrol on undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Sociological studies from the 1960s to the 1980s focused on the educational disadvantages which  female students faced within society generally and within the education system in particular. These studies, although now rather dated ,remain important  partly as  useful analyses of their time and also because they may point to still existing  disadvantages which  prevent females from improving their educational achievements even more than they have done in recent years.

In this section of the document  I shall be provide information on these earlier studies before concentrating in Part Three on the extent of and reasons for the relative improvement of female educational qualifications since the late 1980s. It will be important also to relate the analysis of gender and educational achievement to relationships between social class, ethnicity and educational achievement.

Three  main types of theory  were used to explain the relative educational underachievement of female pupils.

  • Biologically based theories
  • Theories based upon overall gender differences in socialisation throughout UK society.
  • Theories focusing especially on the organisation of schools.
  • Biologically based theories

With regard to biologically based theories, it has variously been argued  throughout history that women have smaller brains than men,  that the different shapes of male and female brains give men advantages in mathematical and technical subjects and that women are more likely than men to be ruled by their emotions.

Since steam may by now be escaping from students' ears  it is important to note immediately that such ideas have been subjected to massive criticisms which are listed below.

  1. It should be noted that relative to average body weight female brains are actually larger than male brains.
  2. Even though the limitations of IQ tests are well known ,data  derived from IQ tests do not suggest that females are less intelligent than males.
  3. Some psychologists have produced data to suggest that female babies have inherently superior linguistic abilities relative to male babies.
  4. Since , in any case, average female educational achievements have surpassed males' at all levels of the UK education system , claims that females are intellectually inferior have been revealed as totally unsupportable.

[Click here for an article by Harvey Goldstein who provides additional information on these issues.]

You will also come across arguments that the structures of male and female brains are different and that helps to explain differing aptitudes of males and females for different subjects. Click here for a critical discussion of such views


  • Theories based upon overall gender differences in socialisation throughout  UK society.

There have also been sociologically based arguments suggesting that females' relative educational under achievement  could have been explained by gender differences in the socialisation process as it operates in UK society and other similar societies. The Socialisation Process  is a very important concept in Sociology which refers to the various mechanisms which operate in the socialisation agencies[ such as the family, the education system, the Church, the mass media and the work place to ensure that individuals accept the values, attitudes and norms of their society.

Perhaps the best known study which emphasised the importance of gender socialisation as an influence on educational achievement was Sue Sharpe's "Just Like a Girl[1976]. Sue Sharpe  concluded on the basis of a study of mainly working class girls in London in the early 1970s that their main concerns  were "love, marriage, children, jobs and careers more or less in that order." Clearly, if these girls saw careers as a relatively  insignificant  priority , they would have been unlikely  to attach much importance to the gaining of educational qualifications.. [However when she  repeated the research in the 1990s, she found that careers ranked much more highly in the order of girls' priorities which could have been a factor contributing to their increasing education achievement] Nevertheless Click here for Professor Gillian Richards' more recent article on the lives of working class girls in which she argues that for a variety of reasons the career aspirations of some working class girls may remain limited . NEW link added April 2018

The following activity is designed to illustrate how gender differences in socialisation could , in principle, help to explain gender differences in educational achievement.

Activity1.Prior to the 1970s   many UK wives would have operated as full-time housewives and mothers while their husbands were in paid employment. How might these domestic arrangements have affected the career aspirations of male and female children brought up in such families?

2. How might differences in career aspirations have affected attitudes to education of male and female students respectively?

3. How may career advice provided within the family for sons have varied to that provided for daughters?

4. What impact may the teenage magazines of the 1960s and 1970s have had on male and female attitudes to education?


  • Theories focussing on the organisation of the schools. [You should consult your textbooks for further details of the following studies.]

Sociologists also developed theories which suggested that gender differences in educational achieved could be explained by a range of factors within the organisation of schools themselves which were operating to the relative disadvantage of female students. Studies focussing on the schools themselves [for example in the work of  Lesley Best, Michelle Stanworth, B. Licht and C. Dweck and others] emphasised the following factors which might restrict girls' educational achievements.

  1. Reading schemes encouraged acceptance of traditional gender roles.
  2. Teachers gave less attention to girls.
  3. Teachers failed to rebuke boys who verbally abused girls.
  4. Boys monopolised science equipment which restricted girls' opportunities.
  5. Girls' worried that if they appeared "too intelligent" this would reduce their attractiveness to boys and thereby undermine their femininity.
  6. Teachers had stereotypical expectations about girls' future career prospects.
  7. Girls were lacking in confidence relative to boys because of the ways in which they were treated in school.
  8. Some subjects within the school curriculum [e.g. Domestic Science ]encouraged girls to see their future as housewives and mothers rather than in full-time employment.
  9. Career Guidance in schools may have dissuaded some girls from continuing with their education and pursuing well paid professional careers.

It must be noted that these conclusions were all based upon small scale studies which  may, as a result not have been  representative. The studies are also now rather dated and teaching methods may now be more enlightened [perhaps not least as  a result of the insights which were provided in these earlier studies] but it is nevertheless possible that female students still suffer some of these disadvantages and  that their examination results are improving more rapidly than boys despite this.

Activity1. Use your textbook to find further information about the sociological studies of Lesley Best, Michelle Stanworth, B. Licht and C. Dweck

2.On the basis of your own experiences of education to what extent would you agree that female students continue to face the same kinds of educational disadvantages mentioned in the above studies? Or have these problems disappeared?


For Part Three -  Click Here