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Gender has a major impact on the experience of education for individuals. While together sexes have elevated their level of achievement, in recent years there have occurred some significant changes, where girls have surpassed boys. The rapid rate in which girls’ achievement has enhanced has resulted in a substantial gap between them and the boys. There are various key factors that have heavy influence on what tends to cause gender differences in achievement and I will be focusing on internal factors i.e. within schools and the education system and external factors i.e. at home and wider society.
Factors within the education system and at schools are pivotal and play an important role in clarifying gender differences in achievement. It cannot be ignored that feminist ideas have had a very huge influence of the education system and has very much raised awareness of gender issues where schools and teachers are more delicate to the need to prevent gender stereotyping. The acceptances that boys and girls are equivalently efficient and eligible to the same opportunities are now a fragment of the mainstream view in education and it definitely influences educational policies. Examples of policies include the National Curriculum which was introduced in 1988, had gotten rid of one cause of gender inequality by presenting the notion that both boys and girls are to study the same subjects, which in previous times was very rare or not something common; encouraging girls to work harder and achieve more. This results in assisting to balance opportunities for all pupils and allowing barriers from previous times to be removed. Boaler (2002) sees the changes in in girls’ achievement and ‘as a result, many feminists and others with equity concerns have developed a range of initiatives that have been successful at raising girls’ achievement, if not their continued participation … and stereotyped attitudes … for girls are largely disappearing.’ (Boaler, 2002, p.137-138).
According to the Department for Education, official statistics from gender of school staff ‘almost three out of four school teachers are female and four out of five school employees are female. The percentage of full-time equivalent school staff by gender: November 2016 73.9 per cent of FTE teachers are female. 84.6 per cent of FTE nursery/primary school teachers are female and 62.5 per cent of secondary school teachers. 91.4 per cent of teaching assistants and 82.2 per cent of school support staff are female. Overall, 80.2 per cent of all school staff is female. The percentage of female teachers has clearly increased over time and in 2010, 72.9 per cent of full-time equivalent teachers were female and this percentage has increased in each year. By 2016, 73.9 per cent of full-time equivalent teachers were female.’ As there has been a growth in the quantity of female teachers present in schools in recent years, this creates active optimistic role models for young girls to encourage them to have high aspirations. By having females be in roles of authority, it provides girls non-gender-stereotypical goals and achievements to aim for as to become a teacher, one has to go through a time consuming and prosperous education herself. This can be heavily criticised as it could be argued that the education system has been ‘feminised’ resulting in boys falling behind due to the fact that schools do not foster ‘masculine’ mannerisms e.g. competitiveness and leadership.
Some sociologists discuss that the changes that have been made to the curriculum with the ways in which students are being assessed have deprived boys and more so ideal for girls. Gorard (2005) suggests that the gender gap in achievements is a ‘product of the changed system of assessment rather than any more general failing of boys’. Gender gap in achievement was always present but Gorard highlights that it had skyrocketed in the year in which GCSEs were introduced and had coursework as major assessments for most subjects. Girls are seen to be more successful in coursework because they are more diligent and organised than boys are. Factors that have assisted girls to gain from the introduction of coursework include that they are able to meet deadlines, spend more time on their work and take care and put effort into presentation. Mitsos and Browne (1998) also reveal that girls benefit from maturing ahead of boys and from their capability to focus for longer. These skills and characteristics which girls possess are a result of early gender role socialisation at home, e.g. girls are taught to be neat, clean up after themselves and more enduring than boys are encouraged to be. Conversely, Elwood (2005) critiques this and proposes that while coursework somewhat has influence, it is improbable to be the only factor of gender gap in achievement. Exploring the importance of coursework and written exams, she settles that exams have further influence on final grades than coursework does.
The ways in which teachers interact with pupils is another influential internal factor. These interactions vary with boys and girls as Spender (1983) indicates that teachers would spend more time engaging with boys than they would girls. However, though Francis (2001) also found that boys were getting more attention than girls, but they were disciplined more toughly and sensed being picked on by teachers while holding lower expectations for them. Francis pointed out that the ‘’crisis of masculinity’ is lowering the confidence of boys so that they no longer have the motivation or confidence to achieve.’ (Francis, 2001, p.2) The ways teachers interacted with girls was way more progressive as conversations are more so concentrated on tasks in the lesson rather than disciplinary. Swann (1998) pointed out that there are gender differences present in communication styles where ‘male students’ tendency to ‘dominate’ in class discussion’ (Swann, 1998, p.148), whereas girls are better at listening and collaborating and would be more interactive in pair work or small groups. Teachers prefer the characteristics which female pupils present and could explain why teachers respond more positively to girls and boost their self-esteems.
The elimination of gender stereotypes in textbooks and other learning materials in recent years has challenged stereotypes in the curriculum and removed barrier in girls’ achievement. This pushes them by presenting them to more positive concepts of what women can be capable of other than what was previously seen e.g. images of women portrayed as mother or housewives, etc. While there have been clear internal factors that have influenced changes in the curriculum and differences in gender achievement, there are also external factors that contribute too. Wider society plays a major role as the impact of feminism on wider society today has raised awareness and resulted in many changes to occur. The social movement of feminism has challenged traditional/ stereotypical views on women’s role and power making them inferior to men both inside and outside the home, at work, in education and by the law. This movement has definitely bettered women’s opportunities in society as a whole. Changes within the family is also another common external factor as there has been an increase in divorce rates and lone female parents, giving girls a completely different attitude, encouraging them to take education seriously in order to secure a breadwinner role in the absence of the male. This newfound financial independence for women creates the urge for them to achieve the required qualifications in order to get well-paid jobs. Changes in women’s employment works in their favour, these include 1) the introduction of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, 2) the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, 3) the flexibility and growth of service sector providing part-time positions have presented many prospects for women. ‘In the 30 years since the Equal Pay Act there have been many changes in women’s economic participation and achievement. More women are working than ever before…accessing training and jobs which previous generations would not have considered open to women.’ (Prosser, 2006, p.1) This creates an incentive for girls to go out into the world and gain qualification to be the best that they can be. It has therefore become more apparent that alterations in the family and employment have formed changes in girls’ ambitions.
Evidence of sociological research to support this view includes Shapre (1994) comparing the results of interviews in which she had conducted with girls in the 1970s and 1990s. Findings of her study show major shifts in the participants’ ambitions and the way they see themselves in the near future. In 1974, the girls interviewed had low aspirations giving their priorities to getting ‘love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers, more or less in that order’. The girls revealed that coming across as being intelligent and ambitious was seen as unattractive and unfeminine. However, in the 1990s when another interview was conducted, ambitions had completely changed and their priorities was now in a different order. Sharpe found that the girls now would rather be career driven and independent than be at home and dependent on a husband.
Despite the progress in girls’ achievement comparative to boys’, there remains to be a customary display of ‘boys’ subjects and ‘girls’ subjects where boys tend to opt for subjects that appear more masculine i.e. maths and physics, whereas girls will more likely tend to go for languages or literature. Schooling more or less emphasises on gender inequality in numerous ways, both within the curriculum and in the communications between teachers and pupil and also pupils amongst themselves. When the National Curriculum was introduced, it removed majority of pupils’ choice to pick or drop subjects by making most subjects compulsory until the age of 16. However, where choice is possible e.g. at GCSE or A Level, through the education system there are some clear gender differences in subject choices. Where there is choice, although design and technology is compulsory, girls will still pick the option of food technology whereas boys will pick resistant materials or graphics. Gendered subject choices are more noticeable after the National Curriculum, when students have greater choice, e.g. at A Level or university where these differences are mirrored in subject choices.
Sociologists have put forward a number of explanations as to why boys and girls tend to opt for different subject choices, which I will go on to explore. 1) According to Oakley (1973), ‘sex’ indicates inborn physical differences between boys and girls, whereas ‘gender’ indicates the learned cultural differences between them. Gender role socialisation is the learning the behaviours of males and females expected on them in society. Thus, early socialisation does shape children’s gender identity as parents tend to reward boys for being lively and girls for being passive, from an early age boys and girls are dressed differently, given different toys and encouraged to carry themselves in different ways. Schools also play a massive role as teachers reflect the expectations of families and wider society onto pupils and as a product of differences in socialisation, boys and girls develop completely different tastes and interests which lead to different subject choices; boys preferring subjects like science and girls subjects like English. 2) The gender image that a subject presents affects who will want to select it. Possible reasons as to why some subjects are seen as either boys’ or girls’ could be because a) the teachers of the subjects are more likely to be aligned with the gender image in which the subject ‘gives off’ and b) the examples the teachers use and the ones present in learning materials such as text books could be gender-stereotypical as well. Intriguingly, according to a Department for Education and Skills (2007) study, pupils who attend single sex schools tend to hold less stereotyped subject images, e.g. unlikely to see modern languages as a girls’ subject, which may consequence in them making fewer conventional subject choices. As Leonard (2006) found, girls in girls’ schools were more likely to choose maths and science A Levels and were more likely to study male dominated subjects at higher education and to earn higher salaries.
Peer pressure can influence subject choice, where other boys and girls can use pressure to an individual if they do not approve of their subject choice. An example of this is boys who tend to opt out of subjects such as dance or drama as they are not deemed as ‘masculine’ and fall outside of their gender domain and want to avoid receiving undesirable responses from their peers. Girls are more likely to opt out of sports because it contradicts their conformist gender stereotype where it is seen as to remain in the male gender domain. A study to support this view was carried out by Dewar (1990) on American college students where male students would refer to girls as ‘lesbians’ or ‘butch’ if they ever appeared to be more into sports than boys were. On the other hand, an absence of peer pressure from the opposite sex may explain why girls in singe-sex schools are more likely to pick traditional boys’ subjects, as the absence of boys means that there is less pressure on girls to coincide to limiting stereotypes of what subjects they can and cannot study. Finally, 4) Employment is very highly gendered, where jobs incline to be ‘sex typed’ as ‘men’s’ or ‘women’s’ and is an significant reason for differences in subject choice. Women’s jobs frequently contain work comparable to those executed by a housewife e.g. nursing and childcare and are concentrated in a limited choice of professions. With over half of all women’s employment falling within four of the following types: clerical, secretarial, personal services and occupations such as cleaning, by contrast, only a sixth of male workers work in these jobs. These sex-typing of careers shape boys’ and girls’ ideas about what kind of jobs are deemed as acceptable or as possible options. So for instance, boys will get the impressions that nursery nurses are women and will less likely go for a career in childcare and as a result will affect what subjects and courses they will choose.
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