Is the gender-gap in academic performance becoming a gulf?

A combination of history, culture and cognition is setting girls even farther apart from boys, academically, around the world – including in the Gulf region

DUBAI, UAE. November 5, 2014. Seniors from Al Mawakeb school attend a Math class. (Journalist: Roberta Pennington) Reem Falaknaz / The National
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Teenage boys are lagging behind girls in UAE schools. Recent Pisa data compiled by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the gender-gap among the UAE's 15-year-olds was one of the widest in the world. For example, the UAE had the second-largest male-female disparity for reading abilities among the 79 countries and territories participating in the latest assessment.

It is not only among the UAE's school students that we see females outperforming their male counterparts. A study published in Learning and Teaching in Higher EducationGulf Perspectives reviewed data on the academic performance of college students too. The answer to the question: "Who gets better grades: males or females?" is usually convoluted. A typical response goes like this: men do better in A, B and C, while women outperform men in X, Y and Z. Across the Gulf region, however, the answer was surprisingly simple: college women outperformed their male counterparts in pretty much everything.

The fact that girls are outperforming boys in primary and secondary school seems likely to be implicated in the current college-level gender disparity. The best predictor of future success is previous success. Doing well in school also shapes our self-concept and influences our future aspirations

Every published study on academic performance in the Gulf region seemed to say the same thing: women, on average, outperformed men across a broad array of college disciplines. For example, a study at the Arab Open University in Kuwait found women did better across all majors. Another study at UAE University in Al Ain found that female undergraduates studying in the college of business and economics significantly outperformed their male peers. The same pattern of results was obtained in a study at Kuwait University, comparing male and female undergraduate psychology students.

This phenomenon is not limited to the Gulf region. There are similar trends among college students reported across many other nations too. In the UK, for example, a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, described the declining enrollment and attainment of male college students as a "national scandal". The HEPI report titled Boys to Men: The Underachievement of Young Men in Higher Education and How to Start Tackling It suggests women are now 35 per cent more likely to attend university than men, less likely to drop out and far more likely to obtain a higher degree classification. Similarly, in the US, men have recently become a minority at college. According to the US department of education, 56 per cent of college admissions are now women, and the number is projected to rise to 57 per cent by 2026. As in the UK, US men are also more likely to drop out.

There is a large body of research in developmental psychology suggesting that from as young as five years of age, boys generally have lower levels of language skills and attention than girls. More five-year-old boys than girls will be recorded as having poor early language skills. Poorer language and attention skills at that age have equally negative consequences across genders. But since more boys fall into this group, it is likely to show up in later educational attainment. Research at Bristol University in the UK suggests that much of the gender-gap in reading by age 11 is explained by the fact that boys have lower levels of language and attention at age five. It is easy to see how poorer language skills at such a young age might have a negative impact on a child’s confidence, enjoyment and motivation – especially in the hands of an insensitive or poorly-trained teacher.

The fact that girls are outperforming boys in primary and secondary school seems likely to be implicated in the current college-level gender disparity. The best predictor of future success is previous success. Doing well in school also shapes our self-concept and influences our future aspirations. Another issue that may negatively impact boys is that they are more likely to be involved in excessive video game play, and less likely to read for pleasure.

Globally, women are now more educated than at any point in history. However, they are still not as educated as men. The global picture suggests that men, on average, continue to enjoy more years of education than women. This overall gender disparity is attributable to women and girls, in some nations, still having limited access to schools and universities – far less access than their menfolk. A few decades ago, this would have been true in places like the UAE too. In 1971, for example, the literacy rates for Emirati men and women over the age of 16 were around 50 and 30 per cent, respectively.

Perhaps this current and historical lack of access is also part of the explanation as to why, in many nations, women are now outnumbering and outperforming men, academically. If access to something was once restricted, then we value it all the more once we get it. Appreciating and valuing education typically translates into superior performance.

Our societies, of course, are better served by gender parity – equal enrollment and equally excellent performance across genders. How can we get boys to value education for education's sake, how can we make reading for pleasure more alluring than the latest shoot-em-up video games? If we can address the disparity in valuing education, then higher male enrollment and improved academic performance will follow.

Al jadara is an Arabic word I am hearing a lot more these days; it means merit. In a meritocracy, rewards and appointments go to the most knowledgeable, skillful, diligent and innovative. Old, decaying systems such as cronyism cannot realistically compete. I predict that in the not-too-distant future, the executive boards of the highest-performing organisations will be as gender-skewed as the current trends in educational attainment, and in the same direction.

Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University