Girls Are Beating Boys in Schools Everywhere — Even in Places Where They Lack Basic Rights


Sing it, ladies: "Anything you can do, I can do better."

A new study from Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow and David C. Geary of the University of Missouri found that girls tend to outperform boys in educational achievement in most countries around the world. Even more impressive, the girls' stellar performances extended to countries in which women face major obstacles to social, political, economic or gender inequality.

The study: The report looked at 1.5 million 15-year-olds in 74 countries around the world the world. It examined their performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment, a global survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide, using scores from four different international assessments conducted between 2000 to 2010, according to Science Daily

The researchers initially hypothesized that inequality between the sexes would negatively affect girls' scholastic performances, given the myriad barriers to success that such inequality can produce. Instead, they found that the girls consistently outperformed the boys: In 70% of countries, girls scored significantly better than boys on the standardized test, which includes reading, mathematics and science literacy sections.

Even in places that typically rank poorly when it comes to gender equality, such as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, the gap between the sexes is fairly high, and girls come out on top. "Boys outperform girls in only three countries or regions: Colombia, Costa Rica and the Indian state, Himachal Pradesh. Boys and girls had similar educational achievements in the United States and United Kingdom," New York Magazine reports

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Geary, one of the authors of the report, noted that although the highest-scoring boys did better on the mathematics portion than the top-scoring girls, taking note of the overall gap is more important. 

"All debate and fretting over [science, technology, engineering and math] stuff, where boys go into STEM fields and do better at math, that is all at the upper end of achievement," he told the Huffington Post. "But there's a whole lot of other kids in the world that are never going to go into STEM. When you look at all of those other 95% of the world's kids, we see boys falling behind girls pretty much everywhere."

This isn't new. We've known for some time that girls tend to do better in terms of educational achievement than boys, and this extends to grades, too. A recent analysis from the American Psychological Association found that girls have done better than boys in school for nearly a century, even in areas where boys are thought to do better, like math and science.

"The girls did better whatever you give them," Daniel Voyer, who published the study, told Time.

Of course, there's a difference between standardized test performance and academic performance. The former tends to measure knowledge and achievement under pressure, whereas the latter incorporates achievement over time and in context. But the recent PISA data indicates that girls are outperforming boys in both of these categories, which in turn suggests that girls have a distinct educational advantage.

Except it doesn't stay this way. If girls have such an advantage in terms of educational preparedness, why do they end up falling behind once they enter the workforce? 

By and large, men are still paid more than women for the same work by about 17.8%. In the United States, women occupy fewer leadership positions, despite earning more undergraduate degrees and nearly as many graduate degrees as men, according to the Center for American Progress. The center found women lag behind even in fields in which they dominate — they make up almost 80% of the labor force in health care and social assistance, but account for just 14.6% of executive officers and 12.4% of board directors.

The numbers have certainly improved — in 1998, for instance, just one woman led a Fortune 500 company, versus 24 in in 2014 — but they're still not anywhere close to where one would expect based on educational achievement.

It's difficult to say for sure why women dominate in educational achievement and fall behind in the workforce, but it's indicative that we still have a great deal of work ahead of us if we want to close the gender gap. 

"The boys' problems are overlooked" when it comes to education, Geary told the Huffington Post. While this may be true, and it's certainly an issue worth looking into, it's equally as important to ask why female performance in education isn't carrying over into the workplace.

Editor's Note: Feb. 13, 2015

Due to an attribution error in the editing process, a previous version of this story did not cite or include quotations around language from New York Magazine. The passage about where boys outperform or perform equally with girls has been updated to fully attribute New York's language.