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Girls Beat Boys in Every Subject, and They Have for a Century

Apr 29, 2014

Stereotypes are hard to break, and when it comes to education and gender, parents — and students — stick with a firmly held belief that girls don’t do as well in math and science, while boys don’t have great language and reading skills.

But a review of 308 studies involving more than 1.1 million boys and girls who were students from 1914 to 2011 blows apart that idea. For 100 years, according to the data that included students from 30 countries, girls have been outperforming boys in all of their classes — reading, language and math and science. And they’ve been doing it throughout their academic careers, from elementary school to high school. Which also means that the “boy crisis” — the worry that boys have recently been falling precipitously behind girls academically — is also a fallacy. They’ve been getting lower grades than girls for a century.

(MORE: The Myth of the Math Gender Gap)

But the conventional wisdom that boys are better at math and science is so entrenched that even the researchers, from the University of New Brunswick in Canada, were surprised by the results. “We didn’t expect to find that girls did better at math and science as well,” says Daniel Voyer, professor of psychology, who published his results in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin. “The girls did better whatever you give them.”

Across all subjects, in all 30 countries, girls’ overall GPAs and their grades in individual subjects outpaced those of their male counterparts. The gap in math and science classes was smaller than that in language and reading classes, but remained significant. Surprisingly, however, Voyer found that the gap was larger in the U.S. than in Scandinavian countries, where principles of gender equity may be more effectively put into practice.

(MORE: The Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature)

But the truth is, studies have long shown that girls tend to get higher GPAs than boys in school. So why the myth that they struggle in certain subjects? Studies documenting the gender gap relied almost exclusively on scores on achievement tests like the SAT, rather than on school grades. While such tests are predictive of performance in school, they may also reflect differences in things like how anxious students get before taking tests, as well as test-taking strategies.

(MORE: The Myth About Boys)

“Tests are more like knowledge: How much do you know? Grades are about how much you know but also how can you work with the material, how can you actually present the material and react to it,” says Voyer. And that’s why stereotypes may still have an integral role in explaining the gender discrepancy between school grades and test scores. Some research suggests that girls tend to focus on mastering material — which is what school exams and papers likely measure — while boys tend to prize getting the right answer over retaining information, something that standardized testing rewards.

Voyer and his co-author, his wife Susan, also speculate that stereotypes may work in more indirect ways. Given the assumption that girls struggle in math and science classes, for example, parents may encourage their daughters to study more or provide them with more resources such as tutors or supplementary learning materials to help them do better in school.

(MORE: Why It’s Time to Get Rid of Standardized Tests)

Voyer stresses that the results simply confirm that girls aren’t necessarily destined to do worse in math and science, but understanding why boys and girls differ in school and on standardized testing remains a rich area for future research. “We are really hoping that with our paper, people will wake up to the reality that girls get better grades than boys and try to figure out what is actually going on,” he says. “We have directions for future research, we don’t have answers — yet.”

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