Smarter sex: Does it matter if girls do better than boys?

Boys will perform just as you expect them to, it seems. If you tell them they aren’t as intelligent as girls and are less likely to do well in tests, that is exactly what will happen. So says the latest salvo in the battle of the sexes that has preoccupied educationalists for decades.

A study published at the British Educational Research Association conference tested two classes of youngsters. One (mixed) class was told that boys generally performed worse in tests than girls; lo and behold, those boys did exactly that.

In the other class of 10-year-olds no such information was imparted, and the performance of the two sexes in a reading test showed greater parity. This is in line with the Pygmalion theory of education, as highlighted in the 1968 US study Pygmalion in the Classroom, which showed that if you split pupils randomly into two groups labelled”improving” and “not improving”, the “improving” group will improve and the other one will not.

So could the answer to the question that has dogged educationalists for years – how to ensure that both boys and girls perform to their best of their ability – be as simple as telling them that they can achieve? The answer is, regrettably, almost certainly not.

After all, not all boys have been told they don’t perform well in tests, yet almost universally they come in a poor second to girls.

It is worth looking at the issue in greater depth, though. And it may also be worth pondering whether there is, in fact, a dilemma to be solved. Why should we worry if girls out-perform boys? Fears over gender performance first came to the fore in the late Fifties and early Sixties: too many girls were being shepherded into the arts and humanities, or were being encouraged not to pursue a career at all because they would only end up looking after a man. A campaign group called Wise – for Women into Science, Engineering and Construction – was set up. It was modestly successful in persuading girls to look at these subjects as a career options, and in persuading teachers to press such options upon their female students.

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