8. Participation and performance of girls and boys in education

Marta Encinas-Martín

Tertiary attainment has increased strongly in most OECD countries among 25-34 year-olds. The average share of younger adults with a tertiary degree has increased from 27% in 2000 to 48% in 2021. Over the last decade, women’s participation in and completion of higher education has significantly expanded in the OECD and partner countries, and a gender gap in educational attainment is opening up among 25-34 year-olds, compared with a more balanced gender ratio among older adults (55-64 year-olds). Women make up at least half of all 25-34 year-olds with bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral or equivalent attainment in every OECD country except Japan. Yet, the share of women tends to decrease at the highest level of tertiary education. On average across the OECD, women account for 58% of recent graduates with a bachelor’s or equivalent degree, 58% of recent graduates with a master’s or equivalent degree, and 48% of those with doctoral or equivalent degree (OECD, 2022[1]).

The reasons for women outnumbering men at bachelor’s and master’s level include that men and women tend to choose different fields of study (see below) with men being more likely to have career goals that do not require tertiary education (OECD, 2021[2]). Men are also more likely to work while studying, and therefore less likely to complete their tertiary education within the expected time required (Quintini, 2015[3]). Much of the remaining gap is likely due to differences in foundation skills (including reading, as discussed below) and in personal traits such as self-regulation, perseverance and motivation, which are important for succeeding in tertiary education where external supervision is limited (OECD, 2021[2]; 2021[4]) (Chapter 10). Looking outside the OECD, existing research shows that the long trend of increasing proportions of women among tertiary education students continued across Asia and Northern Africa and, albeit at a slower rate, in Sub-Saharan Africa (Global Education Monitoring Report Team, 2020[5]; OECD, 2022[6]).

Girls are also outperforming boys in reading at school. In OECD PISA 2018, girls outperformed boys in reading by almost 30 score points on average across OECD countries and in every participating country and economy. Also, in many countries the gender gap in reading literacy increased slightly over the past years (Figure 8.1). The size of the reading literacy gap varies across countries. The narrowest gender gaps (less than 20 score points) were observed in Argentina, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China) (hereafter “B-S-J-Z [China]”), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru; the widest (more than 50 score points) were observed in Finland, Jordan, the Republic of North Macedonia (hereafter “North Macedonia”), Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (OECD, 2019[7]).

While boys have historically registered better performance in mathematics, girls have advanced in recent years. In OECD PISA 2018, boys outperformed girls in mathematics by a much smaller margin than girls outperformed boys in reading. The average gender gap in mathematics amounted to only five score points in favour of boys, on average across OECD countries. Despite the stereotype that boys are better than girls at mathematics, boys significantly outperformed girls in mathematics in only 32 of the 79 countries and economies that participated in OECD PISA 2018. The largest difference in scores in favour of boys was seen in Colombia, where boys scored around 20 points higher than girls. In Argentina, Costa Rica, Italy and Peru, the difference amounted to between 15 and 18 points. In many other countries, there is no significant difference. However, in 14 countries and economies (Brunei Darussalam, Finland, Iceland, Indonesia, Malaysia, Malta, North Macedonia, Norway, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates), girls significantly outperformed boys in mathematics (OECD, 2019[7]).

In science, girls outperformed boys by two score points in OECD PISA 2018; and in around half of the countries/economies assessed, the gender gap in science performance was not statistically significant. In only six countries/economies was boys’ performance in science significantly higher than that of girls; the opposite was observed in 35 countries and economies. The widest gender gaps in science performance, in favour of girls, were observed in Qatar (a gap of 39 points), Jordan (29 points), Saudi Arabia (29 points) and the United Arab Emirates (26 points) (OECD, 2019[7]).

The average performance of boys and girls masks wide variations amongst students at different proficiency levels. Using data from several large-scale international surveys, including previous cycles of OECD PISA (from 2000 to 2012), Baye and Monseur (2016[8]) show that gender differences vary largely by students’ proficiency level, and that the gender differences at the extreme ends of the performance distribution are often more substantial than gender differences at the mean (OECD, 2019[7]).

OECD PISA 2018 results also show variability in boys’ and girls’ performance. In most participating countries and economies, the variation in performance in reading, mathematics and science was larger amongst boys. A larger standard deviation and lower mean reading performance amongst boys strongly implies that more boys than girls would be expected to score towards the bottom of the performance scale. As shown in Figure 8.2), boys are over-represented amongst students who scored below 450 points, while the opposite is observed amongst students who scored higher (OECD, 2019[7]).

OECD PISA found that 15-year-old boys are more likely than girls of the same age to be low achievers. On average across OECD countries, 28% of boys and only 18% of girls did not reach Level 2 proficiency in reading, which is considered a “minimum” proficiency level. In 26 PISA-participating countries and economies, more than one in two boys did not reach Level 2 proficiency in reading. Only in B-S-J-Z (China), Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, Korea, Macao (China), Poland and Singapore did more than four in five boys attain Level 2 proficiency in reading. By contrast, in 36 countries and economies, more than four in five girls attained at least this level of proficiency in reading. Reading proficiency is the foundation upon which all other learning is built; when boys and girls do not read well, their performance in other school subjects suffers too (OECD, 2019[7]).

Given these results, the weak reading performance amongst boys, also observed in previous OECD PISA assessments, should be a matter of considerable concern in several countries.

The sizeable number of boys who fail to make the grade in all three core OECD PISA subjects is a major challenge for education systems. Students who perform poorly in all subjects are hard to motivate and keep in school (Chapter 10). Because of their very low levels of skills, these students may also feel disconnected from and disengaged with school. It may then become easier for these students to build an identity based on rebellion against school and formal education than to engage and invest the effort needed to break the vicious cycle of low performance and low motivation (OECD, 2015[10]).

There are many possible reasons for boys’ poor performance in school, and many of them relate to differences in behaviour between boys and girls. Previous analyses of OECD PISA data suggest that girls tend to spend more time than boys doing homework. This is important because in several countries and economies that participated in OECD PISA 2012, homework time was positively correlated with student performance (OECD, 2014[11]). In a subset of 32 countries and economies that participated in OECD PISA 2018, students were also asked how long they studied before going to school and after school on the most recent day prior to the PISA test. On average across OECD countries where this optional questionnaire was distributed, 64% of boys and 73% of girls reported that they had studied at home for more than one hour on the day immediately prior to the PISA test (OECD, 2019[7]). Moreover, outside of school, boys spend more time playing video games than girls and less time reading for enjoyment, particularly complex texts, like fiction (OECD, 2015[10]).

The picture is quite different when looking at high-performing students, especially for mathematics. OECD PISA results show that boys perform better than on average across OECD countries, 12.3% of boys and 9.5% of girls attained the highest levels of mathematics performance (Level 5 or 6), while 7.3% of boys and 6.2% of girls were top performers in science (OECD, 2019[7]).

As in the case of low performance of boys, there could be many possible reasons for the underachievement of high-performing girls in mathematics. In general, girls have less self-confidence than boys in their ability to solve mathematics or science problems. Girls – even high-achieving girls – are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics. In 70 countries and economies that participated in OECD PISA 2018, girls reported more often, and to a larger extent, than boys that they fear failure (OECD, 2019[7]). OECD PISA revealed that self-efficacy (the extent to which students believe in their own ability to solve specific mathematics tasks) and self-concept (students’ beliefs in their own mathematics abilities) are much more strongly associated with performance among high-achieving than low-achieving students; but at every level of performance, girls tend to have much lower levels of self-efficacy and self-concept in mathematics and science. At the same time, girls tend to be highly motivated to do well in school and to believe that doing well at school is important. They also tend to fear negative evaluations by others more than boys do and are eager to meet others’ expectations for them. Given girls’ keen desire to succeed in school and to please others, their fear of negative evaluations, and their lower self-confidence in mathematics and science, it is hardly surprising that high-achieving girls choke under (often self-imposed) pressure (OECD, 2015[10]).

The COVID-19 pandemic and the related school closures and home schooling have likely contributed to gendered differences in education outcomes and experiences (Box 8.1).

The nature and implications of gender gaps in skills change over time. Gender gaps in reading skills have shown to shrink with age. The gender gaps in reading performance observed amongst 15-year-olds in PISA virtually disappears amongst the 16-29 year-olds who were assessed by the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). To some extent this may have to do with differences in the cohorts; but another explanation is that literacy is a transversal skill that is necessary to develop in order to succeed in the modern labour market. It is possible that this encourages men to develop and catch up with their female counterparts as they enter the labour market. This means that narrowing gender gaps in reading does not necessarily require expensive reform, but it needs to be supported (Box 8.2).

By contrast, in mathematics, the advantage of men increases steadily in an almost linear way (Borgonovi, Choi and Paccagnella, 2021[21]). A plausible reason is that men tend to specialise in fields that use numeracy skills more intensively. Advanced mathematics is less commonly used and not an imperative to succeed, so women who are not in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sectors have little reason to catch up with their male counterparts (Borgonovi, Choi and Paccagnella, 2021[21]).

Students’ beliefs about their own competence in mathematics are related to how well they perform compared to their classmates, and also to how well they perform in mathematics compared to their own performance in other subjects. Because girls tend to perform so well in reading, they may, unconsciously, believe that they are underperforming in other subjects. As a result, they have less confidence in other subjects, like mathematics, which, in turn, could undermine their performance. Teachers and parents can stop the corrosive effects of these comparisons and help girls to build their confidence by evaluating girls’ actual abilities – noting the tasks they can accomplish relatively easily and those with which they struggle (Encinas-Martin and Cherian, 2023[22]). They can provide positive reinforcement for the work girls do well and offer girls opportunities to “think like scientists” in low-stakes situations, where making mistakes does not have consequences for their marks.

This means that narrowing gender gaps in mathematics requires early and life-long interventions. For instance, certain methods of teaching mathematics can also help narrow the gender gap in performance. For example, OECD PISA reveals that girls benefit the most when teachers ask students questions that make them reflect on a given problem; give them problems that require the students to think for an extended time; ask students to decide, on their own, on which procedures to use to solve complex problems; present problems in different contexts so that students know whether they have understood the concepts; help them learn from the mistakes they have made; ask them to explain how they solved a problem; present problems that require students to apply what they have learned in new contexts; and assign problems that can be solved in different ways (OECD, 2015[10]).

Overall, the above actions require concerted efforts by parents, teachers and employers to become more aware of their own conscious or unconscious biases so that they give boys and girls equal chances for success at school and beyond (Schleicher, 2019[23]).


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