Around the World, Gender Gap Found To Be Growing

By Debra Viadero — May 29, 2009 2 min read
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Despite educators’ best efforts to create an even playing field for girls and boys, gender gaps appear to be growing around the world, says a report out this week. (A hat tip to the Gotham Schools blog, which picked this item up from a U.K.-based blog called SchoolGate.)

The report, which was published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, bases its findings on results from three successive administrations of tests from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which are taken by 15-year-olds in dozens of countries.

The study says the largest gaps are in reading, where girls outperform boys by an average of 32 test-score points, which seems like a lot to me. What’s more, girls have the edge in that subject in every participating country. Surprisingly, high-scoring Finland had the largest gender differences, but researchers attributed that mostly to the unusually good performance of Finnish girls in that subject.

The study also found that gender differences in reading grew between 2000 and 2006, with some of the greatest growth coming in Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. (Don’t look for the U.S. on this measure. The report contains no data for American students on the latest reading test.) Even more disturbing, that growth is due mostly to the declining performance of boys, according to the OECD researchers.

In math, a small gender gap of 11 points on average favors males over females, with Korea racking up the biggest gender difference. The trend is more hopeful here: Across the board, there were no substantive changes in the size of the gap between the 2003 and 2006 test administrations. If you look at the appendix in the back of the report, you can also see that the math gap is smaller than average in the U.S., which is also good news.

The report contains no trend data for science because the 2006 PISA test was the first for that subject. But those results show that male and female 15-year-olds generally performed at similar levels on that test. Still, boys outperformed girls on questions requiring students to “explain phenomena scientifically,” while girls had the edge on questions that involved “identifying science issues.” In science, though, the gender gap is slightly larger for the U.S. than it is for OECD nations overall.

It’s for better minds than mine to determine whether the persisting gaps are due to culture or innate differences in the way that girls and boys think—the Mars vs. Venus thing, in other words. But the report does point to two possible causes for girls’ advantage in reading: Girls around the world do more homework and spend more time reading for pleasure than their male counterparts do.

Check out the full text of the report, “Equally Prepared for Life? How 15-Year-Old Boys and Girls Perform in School,” here.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.