Are research findings that girls have better grades than boys a challenge to the male ego?
Years ago, Harry Belafonte had a big hit with a song called “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” It’s a fun little song with a million verses. If you check out Robert Palmer or The Grateful Dead, you’ll get different lyrics. The chorus goes something like this:
I say, it’s the women today
Are smarter than the men in every way
That’s right, the women are smarter
In case you needed it, there’s also research proof. A new study by Daniel and Susan Voyer tells us something many people have long suspected: Girls and women get better grades or “marks” (so as not be confused with 1st grade, 6th grade, etc.) than boys and men. The study, published in the highly respect journal Psychological Bulletin, breaks down marks in a variety of ways, including type of course (math, science, languages, etc.), level of schooling (elementary through graduate), race/ethnicity, year and a few other factors.
Ultimately, one thing stood out: across all types of courses, including math and science, across nearly 100 years of data, from 1914 to 2011, and across a broad variety of countries, the results were remarkably stable: females outperformed males.
We’re all used to studies that come out one week saying something like red wine is good for you and then another study comes out the next week that says red wine is bad for you. But that’s not the case here. This study is a mathematical review of all those prior studies or a “meta-analysis.” In practice, it’s the bomb. By reviewing all other studies, results can’t be ignored because “it was just one school” or something like that.
The Technical Details
The Voyers, who specialize in meta-analysis, followed a 6 step procedure to examine the question “who gets better marks in school?”
- Identify all studies in the professional databases by using all combinations of keywords from column A (“academic performance,” “GPA,” etc.) and column B (“gender differences,” “sex differences,” etc.).
- Post notices on professional listserves looking for these types of studies, including unpublished findings.
- Eliminate any findings about one-time tests like the SAT, GRE, end-of-grade exam, etc. in order to focus on school marks.
- Eliminate any study that focused on a special population, such as gifted students, developmentally delayed students, students with a mental health diagnosis (or IEP or 504), or students with a serious medical condition (e.g., low birth weight, children with cancer) because this is about the general or “average” student.
- Eliminate any study that focused on only boys or only girls because they wanted to examine comparisons between boys and girls.
- Eliminate any study that doesn’t have the necessary technical details, such as number of students or a numeric indicator of the difference.
Following this procedure, they identified more than 15,000 published studies and more than 2,000 unpublished works (these and dissertations). Of these, 369 groups of students (“samples”) who were compared in 502 ways by the original authors became the focus of the Voyers’ analysis. There are more comparisons than samples because some studies compared grades in two or more areas, like math and science, while other studies focused on just one set of marks. In total, the Voyers relied on data from 538,710 males and 595,332 females from 1st grade through graduate school.
The biggest finding is that females get better marks than males, overall and in every course content area including math and science. It’s true from elementary school through graduate school, although the differences were smallest among graduate students. Although there were individual studies where boys had better marks than girls, when the Voyers examined results across studies, girls outperformed boys in the aggregate for every analysis the Voyers computed. Every one. There was not a single analysis in which boys and men had better marks than girls and women.
Additional analyses showed the gender gap to be larger in North America (defined as the US and Canada) than in other countries and that females have been getting better marks than males for nearly 100 years. That’s about the entire time that mandatory public education has been available.
Some things the Voyers examined weren’t related to the academic gender gap, like public vs. private schooling or the grading system (0-100, 0-4.0, letter grades only). In the US, the school’s racial and ethnic composition wasn’t a factor. That means the academic gender gap was about the same regardless of who the students were. The Voyers had to use a simplified scheme to quantify this; schools were classified as White, Black, Latino, or Asian if more than 75% of students were in one of those categories; else, they were “mixed.”
Robert Palmer has a verse that’s always struck me as particularly poignant because it talks about not being able to live up to some definition of masculinity.
A little boy sat down and cried
An old man passing, asked him why
He said I can’t do what the big boys do
Old man sat down and he cried too
From Palmer, I’ve always assumed it was about sex. But the notion that men should be or are naturally smarter than women, is certainly widespread. And clearly wrong, according to these results. If you believe “girls are better in language (native or foreign) and boys are better in math and science,” you’re half wrong. Girls are better in language courses, for both their native and foreign languages. In fact, language courses were the place where girls and women had their biggest advantage. But it’s wrong about performance in math and science; girls and women have better marks. Admittedly, their smallest advantage was in math, but that’s their smallest advantage. A win is a win, whether it’s a squeaker or a blowout.
Stereotypes influence the expectations of students, parents, and teachers, as well as the perceived value and effort placed on particular subjects. If you think that you, your son, or a male student in your class should be good at math, then you’ll place more value on it and (encourage him to) work harder. The Feminist movement has done a good job of pushing Americans to question their stereotypes about girls and women and has convinced us all that they can be good in math and science, but there’s no coordinated movement to question our male stereotypes. In that, the 5 year old Good Men Project is a pioneer.
The Voyers’ findings give some support to the notion that schooling may be better suited to the average girl than the average boy. Schooling is cumulative, so small gaps in the earlier grades can become big gaps later on. As a result, the top 10% of a high school graduating class may be dominated by girls and the bottom 10% dominated by boys. Michal Gurian has spent the past decade describing how classrooms can be changed to better help all students reach their academic potential. I think we also need to invest more heavily in vocational training because not everyone can or should go to college, plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics make good money, and those jobs can’t easily be outsourced.
You could twist these findings to say that schools are a form of institutional sexism that privileges girls. I don’t buy that. Until the 1970s, many colleges and universities were male only. Among the colleges that did accept women, many allowed them to study teaching and nursing but nothing else. And while women now outnumber men at the undergraduate and graduate level in the US, more men than ever are attending college.
Then again, maybe we don’t need to do anything to schools. Despite hysterical claims about “the end of men,” the reality is that men have and will continue to adapt to the culture around them. Even though boys and men have always gotten worse grades than girls and women, it doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted men’s earnings (i.e., gender wage gap), their ability to move up the corporate ladder (e.g., male-to-female ratio among CEOs, in high political office, etc.), or even straight men’s ability to find marital partners. Maybe the academic gender gap is something that men should just get over? Or perhaps it should be teaching men humility?
*author’s note: Last paragraph edited after publication.