Maths for boys, French for girls? How gender stereotypes are perpetuated in school


Do gender stereotypes enter the school preferences of French pupils? A study conducted in 2005 showed that they strongly influenced the perceptions that CM2 pupils (10-11 years old) have of school subjects . Thus, boys tended to value mathematics and physical education and sports lessons, while girls valued French lessons and reading and written expression work. How have things evolved since then?

If the texts of the National Education promote gender equality, they remain not very binding and do not commit to concrete actions at the level of the school and the training of teachers. The publication of annual reports on the success of girls and boys and that of Xavier Gauchard ‘s work on the issues and levers linked to inequalities suggest that this trend of immobility could be reversed, in a context of global awareness on gender stereotypes.

Gender stereotypes and school orientation choices

On social networks, several major movements have emerged, including #MeToo , raising awareness of discrimination and social injustice. Studies of the impact of this movement conducted in Argentina , Australia and the United States reveal that the movement provided a platform for women’s voices and the organization of feminist groups.

On the other hand, at the level of research in education, more and more studies are being carried out trying to explain why, although girls do better in school, they end up in the less prestigious courses at university. . Indeed, young women mainly choose fields of study related to literature, human sciences and health rather than STEM courses (Science, Technology, IT, Mathematics). In return, the pay gap between the sexes remains pronounced: in OECD countries , with a higher education diploma, women earn on average 74% of the salary of men.

In short, since 2005, awareness of the damage linked to inequalities and gender stereotypes has been observed at a social and cultural level. This phenomenon would be expected to give individuals, of all genders, more opportunities to pursue their interests independently of societal expectations, and, perhaps at an initial stage, a bifurcation in the perception of school subjects by girls and boys.

To examine this hypothesis, we repeated the survey, 15 years later , to examine the evolution of CM2 pupils’ perceptions of school subjects. 

Moreover, in a supplementary question when pupils are asked to rank the subjects in order of importance, the boys answer mathematics first and French second. The opposite is observed for girls.

Despite the greater media coverage of these problems linked to stereotypes, in the classrooms, the status quo still seems relevant.

The role of teachers in replicating stereotypes

Gender stereotypes play a role in how teachers adapt their practices to students’ needs. In general, their expectations will be lower in STEM for girls than for boys, leading to gender-differentiated attitudes of their students.

2009 study compared student math scores to a standardized test and teacher-assigned grades. The results show that the boys who perform well on the standardized test are over-evaluated by the teacher and that, conversely, the girls who perform well are under-evaluated.

Even if these differentiated attitudes and expectations are not made aware by teachers, they have a significant effect on student behavior: “They fuel boys’ confidence in their mathematical abilities and undermine girls’ confidence, who hesitate to engage in scientific training” .

Thus, in our study, we also question the teacher’s perspective on the question of the importance of school subjects for students. First, we asked teachers to rank the different disciplines in order of importance to students.

In this question, men and women place French lessons first and mathematics lessons second. But, this result is accompanied by a nuance… We asked them which discipline they thought was the most important for girls, and for boys. To this second question, we find that teachers offer a differentiated response. French and arts classes would be more important for girls, and math and science classes would be more important for boys.

The answers obtained therefore vary according to the gender of the pupils, but not according to the gender of the person questioned, meaning that men and women share the same vision of things. The results are similar to those obtained 15 years earlier and suggest that teachers’ representations still conform to gender stereotypes.

Breaking the vicious circle of stereotypes

Opening up STEM fields to girls and women would increase the pool of talent and the potential for innovation in these fields. More people, more skills!

Moreover, the voice of women in these fields is underrepresented, their perspectives are neither heard nor, at times, even known. If the perspectives of women, and other minority groups, are ignored or neglected in research and innovation, this can lead to products that only meet the needs and expectations of a part of the population.

A society that wants to be egalitarian and democratic should take this fundamental principle of equality between girls and boys seriously. Indeed, the absence of girls in STEM perpetuates gender inequalities since STEM jobs often offer higher salaries and career advancement opportunities. It is clear that promoting gender diversity in STEM fields is necessary to achieve social equality and create a fairer society.

According to the social cognitive theory of career guidance , our career choices are influenced by our perception of what we are capable of accomplishing (self-efficacy) and what we will get out of it (expectations of results). Studies show that, given equal proficiency, women generally have a lower sense of self  efficacy when it comes to STEM than men. It is therefore not their interest in STEM, nor their skills that are in question, but their sense of self-efficacy.

A strong factor at the origin of this low feeling of self-efficacy is the persistence of gender stereotypes linked to the skills of individuals. Thus, a fundamental lever to encourage girls to go into STEM fields would be to sensitize and train teachers with regard to gender stereotypes, and to address problems that are unintentionally perpetuated by teachers themselves

Author Bios: Margault Sacre is Doctor in Psychological and Educational Sciences, Audrey Imberdis is an EPS pedagogical advisor and associate researcher, Carine Souchal is an Associate Researcher at the ACTé laboratory and Marie-Christine Toczek is a University Professor all at Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)