Girls are outperforming boys academically in the United States largely because they have more ambitious expectations for the future and are less likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, according to a new study by CIFAR Fellows called “Leaving Boys Behind.”
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“By high school, girls are in the driver’s seat for their own futures. They seem to be in control of their own fate,” said Nicole Fortin.
Fortin is a Senior Fellow in the Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being program and a professor at the University of British Columbia. She co-authored the report with Fellows Philip Oreopoulos from the University of Toronto and Shelley Phipps from Dalhousie University.
Although girls have outperformed boys in high school for decades, the gap has increased in recent years, and has also begun to translate into better academic performance in university.
The researchers wanted to find out what accounted for the growing gender gap in high academic achievement, and dug into a survey maintained by the University of Michigan, which contains information on students in grades 8, 10 and 12 from 1976 to 2009.
The single biggest factor they found was the difference between boys’ and girls’ plans for the future, which accounts for more than 50 percent of the differential between girls and boys.
The girls had higher educational expectations and career plans that included graduate degrees in fields such as law and medicine. A higher proportion of boys aimed for two-year college degrees, vocational schools, or for careers in the military or protective services.
The results show that it’s the girls’ expectations which have changed. In the 1980s 1 in 5 girls anticipated working in a clerical position at age 30. By the 2000s that proportion had plummeted to 1 in 40. Boys’ expectations on the other hand, have changed much less.
Student attributes, like race, standard metropolitan statistical area, or non-cognitive traits captured by smoking, alcohol binging, school ability and misbehaviour, make up the second most important category of differences.
“Boys are engaging in smoking and binge drinking more readily than girls,” Fortin said. “Despite knowing the long-term risks, they continue to engage in behaviors showing that they are less forward-thinking.”
Although the news is good for girls, disparities could cause problems for both boys and girls down the road, Fortin says. For instance, women who want a partner of similar educational level will find fewer candidates. Lower-achieving men who live at home until their 30s are delaying their entry into adulthood. The balance of power within families could change, possibly increasing the risk of divorce.
Fortin said that the interest in this study has already catalyzed ideas for ongoing research.
She added, “I hope that this study raises awareness about gender differences in the ways that girls and boys learn – everyone does not fit into the same mould.”
Fortin presented the findings at CIFAR’s Building Better Lives and Communities Forum in Toronto on September 19.
–with files from Karen Yarmol-Franko