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Individual Differences

Gender Equity And Schooling

The 1992 publication of the landmark report How Schools Shortchange Girls, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, brought gender equity to the forefront of educational reform. Since then, the focus of discussions about quality education for all students has shifted from equality to equity. In the context of gender, equitable education appropriately addresses the needs of both girls and boys rather than assuming that those needs are identical. Thus, equity in education provides equal opportunities for reaching a shared standard of excellence. Simply defined, gender equity in education is the absence of gender differences in educational outcomes.

Researchers struggling to identify the origins of gender differences have examined a range of theories, including biological, psychoanalytic, social learning, and cognitive developmental approaches to gender differences. While there has been ongoing debate about the role of biology as a source of cognitive differences, educators agree that changes in educational outcomes must focus on the psychosocial aspects of behavior. Regardless of the specific causes of gender gaps, schools have a mission to ensure that all students can fully participate in and experience educational success. While acknowledging that individual differences within each gender are substantial, this analysis will focus on girls and boys as aggregate groups in an examination of similarities and differences in schooling experiences and outcomes. These differences will be reviewed in relation to mathematics, science, humanities, technology, and extracurricular activities, including differences in both attitudes and outcomes. Except where noted, the information presented here is based on data from public schools in the United States, for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Statistical findings reported are based primarily upon results from a number of large-scaled studies and reports, such as those of the American Association of University Women, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Gender Equity Pertains to Boys and Girls

Because much of the literature regarding gender in education has focused on areas where girls are underserved, some have argued that gender equity appeared to pertain to girls only. Near the turn of the new millennium, however, a few authors brought attention to the education gender gap for boys, showing that the national phenomenon of male underachievement has been nearly invisible in the gender-equity literature. Gender equity is not "for girls only," and improvement for one gender should not imply a disadvantage for the other.

Early Behavioral Outcomes

Girls and boys appear to have similar types and amounts of opportunities to help them prepare for elementary school. For example, equal numbers of girls and boys are enrolled in center-based preschool programs and receive equivalent amounts of literacy activities at home. Preschool girls perform higher on tests of small motor skills than boys, and they show fewer signs of developmental difficulties in areas such as physical activity, attention, and speech. Boys in the early grades are more likely to be identified as learning disabled, to be tracked into remedial and special education classes, to be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, to be involved with crimes and violence on school property, to repeat a grade, and to be suspended from school. Subsequently, boys are more likely to drop out of school altogether. Girls, on average, receive higher grades than boys in all subjects beginning in the early grades–a trend that continues throughout middle and secondary school.

Classroom Environment

Aspects of the classroom environment have been found to foster and/or reinforce gender biases. Often unintentionally, many teachers exhibit gender biases when interacting with students. For example, teachers generally give more attention to boys than to girls. Ironically, this is partly caused by the fact that girls tend to be better behaved in the classroom and more attentive to assigned tasks. Teachers' attention is often consumed by boisterous or aggressive behaviors more typical of boys. Teachers also tend to give less feedback (positive or negative) to female students. Without such feedback, girls may be deprived of valuable opportunities to evaluate their own behaviors and ideas and to learn to cope with constructive criticism. Boys, on the other hand, when reinforced for their boisterous behaviors, may fail to learn self-control, listening skills, and respect for others.

Classroom materials may also serve to reinforce gender biases in the schools. Although editors of textbooks and other instructional materials have made greater efforts to include women since 1992, female characters continue to play a smaller role than male characters in classroom materials. Moreover, when female characters are represented, they are often shown in stereotypical roles that reinforce gender biases.


Among the core academic subjects, some are considered typically "male," and others "female." In spite of increased female enrollment in mathematics and science courses, ideas persist that these subjects are for boys, while the humanities and social sciences are for girls. Students often act on these stereotypes in class activities by self-selecting into groups and roles according to gender norms. In science classes, for example, boys often dominate laboratory equipment, controlling hands-on experiments while girls observe and take notes. Similarly, when boys and girls work together on computers, boys tend to sit where they can more easily view the monitor and take control of the mouse. Also, computer usage is typically dominated by boys during after-school activities.

Differences remain in boys' and girls' attitudes toward academic subjects. On average, girls report liking mathematics and science less than boys, and having less confidence in their ability to succeed at these subjects. Girls also rate themselves lower in computer abilities than boys, and are far more likely to suffer from math anxiety or tech anxiety. They tend to perceive these subjects as being less useful in their lives, which may diminish their achievement motivation in these areas. Hence, fewer girls plan to choose careers in mathematics, science, or technology. Additionally, whereas boys tend to believe their success in academics is the result of ability, girls tend to attribute academic successes and failures to luck and other external factors. This attribution of success to factors other than effort may lead some girls to feel "helpless," particularly in subjects they perceive as male domains.

Mathematics and Science

Encouragingly, the gender gap in mathematics and science course enrollment is closing. At least as many girls as boys are now enrolling in algebra, geometry, precalculus, calculus, trigonometry, and statistics/probability courses. Moreover, girls receive higher grades than boys, on average, in math classes (as in all academic subjects). Nevertheless, girls consistently lag behind boys in scores on standardized mathematics assessments, including the mathematics sections of the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), the SAT, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and mathematics Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Such "high-stakes" exams are critical factors in determining college admission and scholarship awards, and lower scores can therefore limit career opportunities.

Gender differences found in science are similar to those in mathematics. In high school, girls are more likely than boys to take biology and chemistry, while about equal numbers of girls and boys enroll in engineering and geology. Physics, however, continues to be a male-dominated subject. Girls also take fewer AP science exams than boys, and they receive proportionately fewer top grades.


Humanities, an area in which female students typically excel, receives little attention in the research about gender in education. With the shrinking of gender gaps in math and science, however, the humanities are quickly becoming an area in which the most substantial gender differences can be found. More girls than boys enroll in English, sociology, psychology, foreign languages, and fine arts. Particularly notable because of its role in standardized testing is the subject of English. Girls consistently outnumber boys in English classes, and significantly outperform them in most reading and writing assessments, with the notable exception of the AP English exam.


Many educators, administrators, and policymakers advocate technology as a tool for empowering otherwise disadvantaged groups, thus leveling inequities in educational achievement. Nevertheless, a number of disturbing gender inequities have already been observed in educational technology use. For example, female enrollment in computer science courses lags significantly behind that of males. Moreover, only a small percentage of the students taking the AP exam in computer science (17% in 1995 and 1996) is female. Many more men than women are computer educators, and women remain greatly underrepresented in computer technology careers. Such disparities are of particular concern because technology skills are increasingly crucial for high-skill, well-paying jobs.

Several hypotheses have been suggested to explain the gender gaps in technology. Social and parental expectations, along with teacher biases, are commonly suggested reasons. Differential access to computers is also thought to play a significant role in creating gender disparities. It is often reported that parents are more likely to buy computers for boys than girls. Moreover, even when given equal access, boys use computers at home more frequently than girls. Additionally, computer software may appeal more to boys than to girls. Computer-related toys and games, designed mostly by males, are marketed primarily to boys and are typically found in the "boys' aisles" in toy stores. Games, which play a significant role in computer use, are dominated by images of competition, sports, and violence, which typically appeal more to males. These games, along with other technology-based materials, may help to perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Extracurricular School Activities

Girls and boys tend to participate in different types of extracurricular activities, representing traditional areas of gender dominance. Females, for example, are more likely than males to participate in performing arts, belong to academic clubs, work on the school newspaper or yearbook, or participate in the student council or government. Females are also more active than males in community service. Males, on the other hand, are more likely than females to play on athletic teams. While girls' rates of participation in team sports have increased since 1972, equity has not been achieved.

The differences in boys' and girls' choices of extracurricular activities may have important consequences. For example, sports participation has been linked to higher academic achievement as well as greater leadership capacity, better overall health, higher self-esteem, and more positive attitudes toward school. On the other hand, participation in non-sports-based extracurricular activities has also been found to build self-esteem, leadership, and social skills; to improve general health; and is associated with higher mathematics and reading test scores.

Individual Differences

It is important to acknowledge that the gender differences described above are based on average group scores. Girls (and boys) are not a uniform group and their needs are certainly not singular. In fact, large differences exist within each gender across different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. For example, African-American girls, despite the existence of both racial and gender discrimination, have a higher self-esteem, healthier body image, and greater social assertiveness than their white female counterparts. These girls also perform better on many academic indicators than their black male counterparts. Similarly, Latino girls score higher than Latino boys in mathematics by the eighth grade, and in science by the twelfth grade–contradicting patterns for girls on the whole. However, Latino females also have the highest dropout rate of all groups of girls, with one in five leaving school by the age of seventeen.

Race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES) appear to play a larger role than gender in determining enrollment in remedial and special education classes; and participation rates are lower in all extracurricular activities for low-SES students. Furthermore, students in ethnically diverse and low socioeconomic schools have less access to technology. Finally, regional differences may also contribute to gaps in educational outcomes. Girls in rural southern regions of the country consistently perform below girls from rural and nonrural areas in other regions. Greater understanding of gender, racial, ethnic, regional, and socioeconomic class differences and needs can only improve U.S. schooling. Building on all students' cultures, interests, and ways of knowing can make schooling experiences meaningful to their lives and useful for addressing social problems. At its core, educational equity seeks to enrich classrooms, expand choices, and widen opportunities for reaching a shared standard of excellence for all students.


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