Over time there has been a switch in gender success throughout education; coming into the late 1980’s underachievement by girls was common; girls were less likely than boys to obtain one or more A-levels and were less likely to go on to higher education. Coming in to the next decade of the 1990’s there was a sudden reversal; girls were now doing better than boys who were now underachieving. In 2006 10% more females were obtaining 2 or more A-levels than males. Women are now getting better degrees than men. Sociologists have looked into this gender diversion from a social perspective. What made this reversal so sudden and why did it occur?


Feminists believe that the education system is patriarchal and dominated by men, just like the work force is. Feminists argue that the education system is just a primary preparation for leading into the future work force. They believe there are still gender differences in subject choice in schools. Colley (1998) reviewed this idea and found that despite all the social changes in recent decades, traditional definitions of masculinity and femininity were still widespread. Sociologists Heaton and Lawson (1996) argue that the ‘hidden’ curriculum is a major source of gender socialisation; within education, various subjects are aimed at a certain gender group; for example cooking would be aimed at girls doing house work and cooking. While most schools now title this course, Food Technology, feminists believe that the subject is still designed to ‘snare’ girls into adopting a mode of behaviour a patriarchal society accept and that the gap between girls and boys is still there in today’s society. Feminists also believe that gender stereotyping may still exist in society as boys are believed to fit better in the future workforce than girls. Reasons given forward for girls previously underachieving in education have been due to females being family orientated and family focused, that education was patriarchal and socialisation of the role they are expected to play as a female traditionally. However, Norman (1988) further points out that before children even begin school at the age of 5, sex stereotyping has already begun from the dolls they play with reinforcing feministic roles; for example: dolls now come with pretend make up and some with aprons on them and mini kitchens for girls to play with. This may affect girls educational aspirations. Similarly, they may come to believe that gaining qualifications through education is secondary to the ideas of love, marriage and having children. Boys, however, are more likely to be given constructional toys which help develop scientific and mathematical concepts. These gender stereotypes are further reinforced through the media. Therefore as a consequence of this form of early socialization girls may have come to value education less than boys particularly around the 1980’s.


By the 1990’s gender stereotyping was still apparent in society however more women were achieving greater success throughout education and work. The Spice Girls were the cultural icons of the 1990’s representing female success and achievement; this could be an argument put forward as to why the gender achievement role started to become more accessible to women and the role eventually switched to females doing better than males. The 1988 Education Reform Act which brought in coursework benefited girls largely also as they’re generally more organised and care more about their works appearance than males do, girls are more chaperoned throughout society by the family as they are seen as more vulnerable than boys and therefore would be at home more often than boys would be and therefore have more time for their work. Feminists believe that the role of education should be to advantage and benefit disadvantaged women. The Education Reform Act of 1988 showed clear indication of women being given more chance to achieve however it can be believed and is by many feminists that really education is reproducing gender inequality and widening the current gap that already exists throughout society.


Sharpe (1976, 1994) interviewed a sample of girls in the 1970’s and another sample in the 1990’s. She found that their priorities had changed from love and marriage in the 1970s to jobs, aspirations and careers in the 1990’s. It’s evident that there was a clear increase in career ambitions by females from this research. This could have been influenced by two things, educational success from coursework and gradual improvement or more modern socialisation from parents and the media, furthering the theology of things such as the Spice Girls. Radical Feminists seek to raise girls’ awareness of the structure of patriarchy in schools and in the workplace and family. Their strategy for doing this is to try and establish female discussion and support groups, in which patriarchy can be examined, and the confidence and skills of females to combat it are developed, eventually this should gradually decrease exploitation of women. According to Mitsos & Browne (1998) the women’s movement and feminism have all together raised the expectations and self esteem of women. This had for feminists had a positive motive for them to keep fighting for equality as although things are much better than in previous times in history women are still not fully equal to men and this is developing into the wider society outside of education and into work. 


Dale Spender believes that teachers throughout school give boys and girls different types of attention; he says that girls are praised for appearance, good behaviour and neat work. He has further looked into the argument of gender inequality in education and said: ‘What is considered inherently interesting is knowledge about men. Because men control the records, and the value system, it is generally believed that it is men who have done all the exciting things, it is men who have made (his)tory, made discoveries, made inventions and performed feats of skill and courage – according to men. These are the important activities and only men can engage in them, so we are led to believe. And so it is that the activities of men become the curriculum.’ – Dale Spender, 1982


Feminist’s views often interlink with that of Spender’s and with their belief that boys are better set out for life, education and the workforce from the moment they are born due to their sex. This goes against the idea of meritocracy and encourages the idea of self fulfilling prophecy and discrimination. Feminists look at society on a macro scale and want to generalise their ideas about males and females to the whole of society. They believe society is based on conflict and that conflict is between the sexes.


A conflict structuralist such as a Marxist would argue that gender inequality is present to ultimately benefit the economy and the bourgeoisie’s needs. Friedrick Engels (1972) a Marxist sociologist had the theory through studying the evolution of the family through time that the monogamous nuclear family developed to solve the problem of the inheritance of private property. Property was owned by males, who needed heirs (offspring) to whom they could pass it on. They needed greater control over women so the paternity of their offspring was certain; furthering the theme of women being the supporter of the male. Therefore through primary socialisation which Parson’s would say is the family, the role of men is already passed on to young children as being the head of the family, the more successful inevitably in education and eventually in work. Secondary socialisation is carried out in education which furthers the values and norms taught in primary socialisation in addition to preparation for the workforce. Young children are indoctrinated by ruling class ideology through hegemony of the bourgeoisie to accept exploitation and expected roles from an early age, whether it is through primary or secondary socialisation of the family and education or through the media. Marxist feminists believe that the women’s role in society is shaped by the needs of the economy and capitalism where women are socialised into supporting men in the home and at work and that education enforces this theory. The ‘warm bath theory’ is a Marxism view and maintains the idea that females should do all they can to keep the alienated working man supported and happy to keep working for the money he needs to support his family, carrying out his role in society. This directly alters the females outlook and aspirations to education compared to males. If a female feels that they’re life is already planned out for them and they’re main goal in life is to achieve a family then education isn’t a necessity just a compulsory extra. It is however argued that Marxism largely ignores the subjugation of women and that their potential ability and views are old fashioned and not of a modern day relevance as many alterations throughout recent times happen to contradict these theories.


Secondary socialisation occurs in schools and throughout education and involves other influences and institutions exerting influence upon a group. Feminists believe that education is an agent of secondary socialisation that helps to enforce patriarchy. When discussing boys in education this bares a large amount of importance because by being around the ‘subcultures’ boys are conditioned into accepting the patterns of behaviour around them as normal and begin to eventually share similar values and roles. This is then when groups of similar ethnicity or class could potentially get together and create a cultural diversity of power and ‘rebel’.


When discussing the topic of attainment in regards to gender another factor is the difference of attention given by teachers to males and females and their set expectations of each.  Boys often demand more attention from teachers than female, usually negative. An interactionist’s perspective is the self-fulfilling prophecy theory which argues that predictions made by teachers will tend to make themselves come true. The teacher defines or labels the pupil in a particular way. This teacher’s interaction with pupils will be informed by their labelling of the pupils, and the pupils may respond accordingly, verifying the label and fulfilling the prophecy. Therefore, if males dominate a superior stand compared to females in the classroom and with their teachers will their label represent a more positive future importance than that of a females? And will the female get over looked? This is further encouraged by ‘setting’ or ‘banding’ due to targeted ability and divisions by grouping in lessons.  Hargreaves (1967) found that children in lower streams in a secondary school were labelled as ‘troublemakers. As a result, they turned against the values of the school and developed a non-conformist delinquent subculture.


Jackson (2006) carried out a mixture of interviews and questionnaires in eight schools to study masculinity and femininity. The schools were dominated by culture of dominant masculinity. This valued toughness, power and competitiveness. Academic work was defined as too feminine to be seen as ‘cool’ by boys. This resulted in many boys messing about in schools and not concentrating on their work, acting out ‘laddish’ masculinity. Jackson believes that laddish masculinity is a ‘response to fear of failure in an increasingly competitive education system.’ With girls now currently doing better than boys it could be argued that many boys have been put off trying to compete with a girl in case the girl does better making the boy feel inferior and humiliated as boys have been indoctrinated to believe they are to do better than females and if they don’t they are not ‘macho’ and ‘cool’.


The media plays a huge role in indoctrinating, socialising and creating cultural identity for many individuals in society. Liberal feminists find evidence of sex role stereotyping in the media and argue that it influences behaviour. Tuchman (1978) said that although representations may be changing with time; ‘media images tend to lag behind changes in society.’ Beuf (1974) argues that children model themselves on TV role models and this leads to many girls abandoning their ambitions before they reach the age of 6. Marxists would see this as cultural hegemony. However from this evidence put forward it indicates the clear vulnerability of individuals in society and shows there are many embedded gender inequalities advertised to us from growing up to the expectations of us from birth due to our gender. Therefore, although education plays a large part of widening the gap, I strongly believe the gap was already there before education starts.


It is increasingly clear that throughout this essay the attainment gap between male and females is definitely there and that it is somewhat partially responsible for gender inequality developing more visible in the wider society. Postmodernists would argue that gender inequality is apparent throughout history and today’s current society however the gap has narrowed and education is not the only reason for the gap there are many other contributing factors. Between 1971 and 2006, the rate of employment for women in the UK wet up from 56% to 70% and is still increasing, divorce rates in the UK in recent investigations have also largely increased proving that women now need an education in means of supporting themselves and their children, independence is becoming more expected of women and more women now look for careers rather than just jobs, which means an added emphasis on education and attaining degree-level qualifications. Therefore, we cannot be clear on exactly why this attainment gap in education exists entirely as times are changing; with evidence from data, statistics, investigations, questionnaires and theories the interpretations made are often different however conclude overall to the idea of it being mainly down to primary and secondary socialisation of individual’s norms and values set by the family, school and the media as to why gender inequalities are current in today’s society.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

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