The school girls rule: an effect trompe eye


Some indicators used by the OECD – such as the best grades obtained by girls in the classroom or the higher number of women graduates than men at the end of tertiary education – suggest female school dominance in Western countries, from l elementary school to university.

This observation is not recent, it has been made for more than thirty years. How then can we explain that women continue to experience both horizontal and vertical discrimination?

Indeed, although over-represented in the fields of human and social sciences (SHS), in education and health, women remain under-represented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science ( STEM), considered to be the most prestigious sectors and leading to the most profitable careers according to the World Economic Forum in 2019; this is called horizontal discrimination.

In addition, in the majority and more qualified than men from the License to the Masters, they are in the minority from the Doctorate, even in certain SHS courses (vertical discrimination). Such observations are surprising in view of the supposed school domination of girls.

An ambivalent valuation

In reality, this female domination is a lure. Admittedly, girls have better grades, repeat less and are more numerous in higher education than boys, but this better achievement is delegitimized.

In appearance, school is a feminine universe, therefore unfavorable to boys, for several reasons. First, there are more female teachers than teachers, especially in kindergarten and primary education. We could then think that girls are favored by the “feminine” expectations of their teachers.

Then, the expression of masculinity would be sanctioned in boys, thus explaining that they do less well in school, and at the same time delegitimizing the success of girls. Specifically, the prescribed expression of masculinity in male children and adolescents is to be successful without (too much) effort to demonstrate supposedly “natural” intelligence.

The feminine connotation of school, schoolwork and effort would hardly be compatible with the construction of a stereotypically masculine identity. Because they are socialized within their families with more stereotypically masculine values, boys would then experience a kind of cultural gap within school which could contribute to their poorer academic success.

However, each of these arguments can be invalidated by different scientific evidence . For example, in two studies published in 2017, we showed that boys adapt to the context in which they find themselves: even if they favor stereotypically masculine values ​​(ambition, competition) in their family context, they adhere more to stereotypically feminine values ​​(altruism, cooperation) in the school context.

In another series of three studies published in 2020 and conducted with students from different fields (engineering school, SHS), we have shown that the selection function consubstantial with the academic system is much more favorable to men / boys. than to women / girls.

If the standards and values ​​promoted within the school find all their legitimacy in the fact that they apparently value values ​​such as altruism and cooperation, thus favoring girls, the structural functioning of this institution also favors , and in a more roundabout, less visible way, the values ​​of competition, those with which boys are more socialized.

Sexist explanations

More generally, we were able to show in other studies published in 2015 and 2016 that, of course, the school conveys stereotypically feminine values ​​but that it contributes just as much to the enhancement of certain stereotypically masculine characteristics and values. Girls’ academic success is explained by their conformism, their self-discipline, their sense of altruism.

In contrast, boys’ academic competence is attributed to their self-confidence and ambition, and to their competitive spirit. This self-confidence and this spirit of competition, even resistance to authority, of boys who succeed in school, even if they can prove difficult for the teaching staff to manage, are seen as guarantees of their autonomy and predictors of a much higher potential for success than that envisaged for girls.

Unlike the characteristics used to account for girls ‘academic success, those used to explain boys’ academic success are therefore strongly prescribed qualities for success in the professional world.

In conclusion, reducing the academic superiority of girls to a question of obedience, respect for school standards and / or the massive presence of female teachers is a sexist explanation of the gaps in academic success between girls and boys, which is particularly discriminatory towards – with regard to girls and women, even if it is obviously not assumed, or even made aware, as such.

The flip side for boys is that the perceived and prescribed antagonism between masculinity and regular schoolwork may lead them not to invest as much effort as they could in their schooling. Thus, the lower educational investment of boys compared to girls would not necessarily be due to the (supposed) feminization of the school, but at least in part to the perception of low utility of the school that gendered socialization would lead them. to develop.

So how can we promote more equality? Instead of this gendered socialization, society in general, and higher education in particular, should further promote the values ​​of altruism, tolerance and cooperation. In fact, in the studies cited above, we have shown that strengthening these values ​​reduces the differences in ambition between women and men once they reach adulthood by increasing that of women without reducing that of men.

Be careful, however: altruism, tolerance, the spirit of cooperation should not only serve to give a good image of oneself but must be seen as a guarantee of future success, characteristics that allow to be selected, recruited, better paid but also to progress in his career.

Author Bios: Delphine Martinot is University Professor in Social Psychology, Alyson Sicard is a Doctor in social psychology, attached to LAPSCO and Celine Darnon is a Professor of Social Psychology all at Clermont Auvergne University (UCA)