Using material from Item A and elsewhere, assess the claim that gender differences in educational achievement are primarily the ‘result of changes in society’
Some sociologists claim that gender differences in achievement are the result of external factors such as changes in wider society, e.g. The impact of feminist ideas and changing employment opportunities (as stated in Item A). However, this could also be an outcome of internal factors such as the education system becoming ‘feminised’, which could have impacted the performance of girls achievement, as it has risen at a faster rate at some levels and in some subjects. Some sociologists also argue that the media have exaggerated the extent and nature of any problem.
External factors such as the impact of feminism and girls’ changing ambitions could have a large influence on gender differences in educational achievement. Since the 1960’s, feminism has challenged the traditional stereotypes of a woman’s role as mother and housewife within a patriarchal family. Feminism has also raises girls’ expectations and ambitions with regard to careers and family. These changes are partly reflected in media images and messages. A good illustration of this is McRobbie’s comparison of girls magazine in the 1970’s, where they stressed the importance of marriage to the 1990’s, where it was more focused on career and independence.
Changes in the family and employment are also producing changes in girls’ ambitions. This is supported by Sue Sharpe’s research where she compared the results of interviews she carried out with girls in the 1970’s and girls in the 1990’s. In the 1970’s the girls had low aspirations and gave their priorities as love, marriage, husbands and children before careers. However, in the 1990’s girls were more likely to see their future as independent women with a career, rather than being dependent on a husband and his income.
There have been a number of major changed to the family in the last 30 years. Some of these include an increase in the divorce rate, cohabitation and an increase in the number of lone parent families (mainly female headed). These changes are affecting girls’ attitudes towards education in a number of ways as increased numbers of female-headed lone-parent families may mean more women need to take on the major ‘bread winner’ role.
This further creates a new financially independent, career-minded role model for girls. The need for good qualifications is made very clear and the girls aspirations tend to require academic effort. Becky Francis points out that boys are more likely to have career aspirations that are not only unrealistic but often require few formal qualifications, e.g. professional footballer.
Evidence suggests that girls are more likely to spend their leisure time in ways which compliment their education and contribute to educational achievements. Mitsos and Browne place considerable emphasis on reading. Women are more likely to read than men, and mothers are more likely than fathers to read to their children. Therefore girls are more likely to have same-sex role models to encourage them to read. Poor language and literacy skills are likely to affect boys’ performance across a wide range of subjects.
Whilst there are factors outside school, internal factors also impact gender differences in educational achievements hugely. According to Tony Sewell, boys fall behind in education because schools have become more ‘feminised’, as indicated in Item A. This means that feminine traits such as methodical working and attentiveness have been emphasised, which in result disadvantaged boys. The gender gap in achievement increased after the introduction of GCSEs and coursework in 1988. Mitsos and Browne argue that girls are more successful in coursework because they are better organised and more conscientious than boys.
They found that girls tend to spend more time on their work, take more care on its presentation and are better at keeping deadlines. This all helps girls to benefit from the introduction of coursework in GCSE, AS and A Level. Sewell suggests that some of the coursework should be replaced with final exams and a greater emphasis should be put on outdoor adventure in the curriculum, as he thinks boys learn differently to girls. Jo Boaler argues that equal opportunities policies such as GIST and WISE are a key factor in the improvement of girls educational performance. Schools have become more meritocratic, which means that girls in general work harder than boys and achieve more.
Teacher-pupil interactions were also identified as being very significant by Barber. For girls, feedback from teachers focused more on their work rather than their behaviour; for the boys it was the opposite. The low expectations of girls in science reinforced their own self-images; boys frequently overestimated their abilities. Research by Abraham (1995) suggests that teachers perceive boys as being more badly behaved than girls in the classroom, and as such expect bad behaviour. Teachers may also tend to be less strict with boys, giving them more leeway with deadlines and expecting a lower standard of work than they get of girls. This can allow boys to underachieve by failing to push them to achieve their potential.
Some sociologists argue that the growth of ‘laddish’ subcultures has contributed to boys’ underachievement. Mac and Ghaill examines the relationship between schooling, work, masculinity and sexuality. He identifies a particular pupil subculture, the ‘macho lads’ which could help to explain why some boys underachieve in education. Jackson found that laddish behaviour was based on the idea that it is uncool to work hard at school. She found that boys based their laddish behaviour on the dominant view of masculinity – they acted tough, messed around, disrupted lessons and saw school work as feminine.
Weiner, Arnot and David’s (1997) criticise this theory and have their own theory that the media have created a misleading moral panic which exaggerated and distorts the extent and nature of any problem. They argue that although the media are also interested in the underachievement of white, middle-class boys, they see black and working-class underachievement as a particular problem because it is likely to lead to unqualified, unemployable black and working-class men turning to crime.
In conclusion, girls are improving in achievement whereas boys are underachieving due to external factors such as: the impacts of feminism; boys poorer literacy skills, unrealistic expectations and also girls changing ambitions and perceptions. On the other hand, there are also internal factors , which in my opinion are equally as valid and important, such as: laddish subculture, teacher interaction and attention, and also positive role models in schools. However the pre occupation with failing boys diverts attention from underachieving girls.
Research by Plummer suggests that a high proportion of working class girls are failing in the school system. Cohen (1999) argues that the question is not ‘why are boys underachieving’, but ‘why boys’ underachievement has now become of concern. Her answer is that it is not just the destruction of the industrial bas of Britain; nor is it the result of pressure put on men by feminism, or by girls’ superior achievement in recent years.