Author: Rachel Marcus

3. Gender norms and educational achievement

Schools often reflect, replicate and reinforce the discriminatory gender norms found in wider society. Here, we outline how norms can undermine educational outcomes.

Stereotypes around the relative abilities of girls and boys

Levtov (2013) and Kagestan et al. (2016) summarise studies on how education reinforces discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes across a range of country contexts through teaching practices (such as responding more readily to boys or asking boys more questions) and through school and classroom organisation, such as gendered assignment of chores – such as asking girls to clean and boys to chop wood.   

Discriminatory norms and stereotypes that affect learning and education outcomes are common and often reflect perceptions of girls’ competence (particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)) and are linked to norms about ‘suitable’ subjects for girls to study or pursue as a future career. In some schools, gender norms see girls channelled towards technical subjects seen as useful for their future role (such as domestic science) and as unsuitable for (and rejected by) boys. Often, boys are steered towards the subjects that may lead to more lucrative careers in later life. UNESCO’s 2017 report, Cracking the Code, provides useful insights into girls and STEM subjects.

Recent data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show some narrowing of gender inequalities in STEM achievement in some regions. But boys still have better overall outcomes than girls in mathematics, physics and computing, as well as greater participation in these subjects. Qualitative evidence shows the strength of these gendered stereotypes among teachers and students alike. For example, see Masinire (2015) (subscription required) on school vocational and technical education in Zimbabwe, and Dunne (2007) on factors and processes related to gender inequality in Botswana and Ghana.

Norms around gender-segregated education

Some studies suggest that boys’ schools may reinforce hypermasculinity (exaggerated male stereotypical behaviour) but there is little comparative evidence. There is also conflicting evidence on whether girls’ schools challenge stereotypes about girls’ capabilities or reinforce conventional norms, as noted by Unterhalter et al. (2014). In both cases, the extent to which they challenge or reinforce discrimination reflects the school’s ethos and its commitment to gender equality, rather than whether boys and girls are educated together.  


Gender stereotypes and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education

There is a pervasive stereotype that girls are less well suited to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and, therefore, less competent in these subjects than boys. This can hamper girls’ interest and achievement in STEM and reinforce the behaviour of girls and boys during STEM classes, with girls reluctant to ask or answer questions and boys monopolising equipment and resources. Some studies show girls being discouraged from STEM subjects, which are seen as harder than others, particularly if subjects are not taught in a way that reflects real world issues.

Girls who have more self-efficacy and confidence in STEM subjects are more likely to reject such stereotypes, with self-efficacy improving both STEM education outcomes and increasing aspirations for STEM-related careers.

Globally, there are sign of a narrowing of the gender gap in STEM-related learning outcomes, but significant regional variations remain. Where data are available in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean, the gender gap in mathematics achievement in secondary education favours boys, with less marked differences in sciences. In contrast, in the Arab states, girls perform better than boys in maths and science subjects in primary and secondary education. UNESCO suggests this may reflect the high proportion of single-sex schools in the region, which may limit the impact of negative stereotypes.

A range of initiatives (mostly small scale and/or time-bound) are underway to interest girls in computing and technology, often in girl-only environments with female mentors. UNESCO’s Cracking the Code and Gardner et al. (2018) provide examples. Though these initiatives look promising, their impacts have not been synthesised. Where all schools are underfunded and most boys also lack STEM opportunities, offering similar initiatives to boys (in parallel, rather than in mixed groups) could prevent resentment and backlash.


Policy question: Are there thresholds for the impacts of education on gender norms? 

The emerging consensus from the literature is ‘yes’. Attending at least some years of secondary education seems to have a critical effect on gender norm change. This is the conclusion of analysis based on the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in India, Rwanda, Brazil, Chile, Croatia and Mexico, and of analyses of education, women’s work and decision-making power in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan by Barker et al. (2012). Qualitative evidence from India sets the threshold a little lower. Arnot et al. (2012), looking at Ghana and India, suggest that girls need at least five years of education to expand their self-confidence and change the way in which young married women are treated by their husbands and in-laws. Apart from IMAGES, few studies from other parts of the world have explored this issue. 

Marcus, R. 2017 Education and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK