The battle of the sexes

The battle of the sexes

Historically, boys have outperformed girls in schooling, tertiary education, and the workforce. However, a recent report by the OECD has drawn attention to the fact that the tables are turning.

Previous generations have indicated an incremental closing of the gender gap in education, but it seems patent that another gender gap is about to manifest. The March 15th OECD report found that in recent years, girls have increasingly demonstrated educational dominance over boys. In the study, girls in 64 countries had substantially outclassed boys in school, with the gap between them equating to almost one year of schooling. This trend has subsisted into tertiary education, with an estimated 66% of young women in OECD countries expected to enter into a university program during their life, compared to only 52% of young men.  This raises the concern that boys are being left behind by girls in education, a problem that was once deemed unimaginable.

Researchers have attributed the comparatively better performance of women in schooling to gender specific characteristics and behaviours. Indeed, girls have habitually expressed greater engagement in reading, a critical foundation upon which all other learning is built on. Additionally, they spend more time on homework, whilst boys, fulfilling their stereotype, are 17% more likely to spend their free time in the virtual world playing online games. Furthermore, boys in the classroom experience more peer pressure to live up to ‘certain expectations in terms of bad behaviour’. This ‘version of masculinity’ can drive boys away from academic achievement, impinging on their education prospects. The implications of this culture are intensified by discrimination within the classroom. Teachers are more inclined to reward polite and well-behaved students. Boys are more likely to engage in bad behaviour, as a result, they may be marked down even in circumstances where they are of equal ability to girls, further exacerbating the gender gap in education. The unexpected outperformance of girls in the education sector has alarmed policy-makers, with Sweden even ‘commissioning research into its “boy crisis”’.

Despite the fact that women are outperforming men in education, this advantage has not translated into the labour force.  The return on university education is notably lower for women compared to men. In 2013, The Council of Australian Governments Reform Council compared the pay gap between men and women, which still stands at 17.5%. These statistics have been attributed particularly to the to under-representation of women in fields of education that notoriously offer higher wages. For instance, women are more likely to be drawn to fields of health and welfare, whilst fewer than 30% of all graduates in more promising areas such as engineering, manufacturing and construction, are women. The segregation between gender compositions in occupations has been linked to stereotyping; and this is rooted in traditional values and perceptions.  To illustrate, common influences such as textbooks often give examples of nurses being female and engineers being male, thus perpetuating outmoded stereotypes. Although the advancement of women in education has certainly boosted their participation in the labour force, the issue of occupational segregation still remains active. Thus, improvement educational attainment for women has not resolved the problem of occupation segregation.

Given this gender inequality in employment, the need for the economic empowerment of women is critical. High childcare costs, workplace cultures penalising women who take a break to have children, and the burden of ‘bearing the main brunt of unpaid household tasks [and] childcare’, can restrict the ability for women to realise their full potential. OECD countries have taken considerable initiatives to address gender equality within the workplace, with Nordic countries such as Germany and Portugal offering not only mothers, but also fathers, paid parental leave with income support.  Moreover, in Iceland, Norway and Spain some companies require at least 40% of their boardroom seats to be assigned to women.  As such, problems arising from tension between work life and family life, and discrimination within the workplace, are diminishing.

Whilst girls seem to be progressing ahead of boys in education, the inverse is true in the employment sector. To extract the best economic and social benefits from education it is best to reverse the imbalance by addressing the factors that determine gender differences in attitudes towards homework and reading. Moreover, policy makers should also endeavour to minimise gender segregation in labour markets, potentially by encouraging women to explore historically male dominated fields, in addition to promoting a culture that enables women to realise their full potential. Until then, women and men cannot compete fairly for the status of the superior sex.