GLOBAL: Gender perceptions influence performance

In most countries, girls and boys now show similar results in the OECD's PISA tests of 15-year-olds. But systematic assessment of gender differences reveals that students are still being held back by their own gender-related perceptions. A new study released by the OECD notes that the choices boys and girls make about higher education and careers can reflect social stereotypes more than student ability.

In mathematics, boys and girls broadly do equally well at the end of primary school but by age 15 boys tend to perform better in all but eight countries. In reading, girls do better than boys by the end of primary school and pull further ahead in secondary school.

The gap has grown significantly since 2000 in several countries, with boys doing less well in 2006 than in 2000 in eight OECD countries: Iceland, Japan, Greece, Norway, Italy, France, Mexico and Australia.

In science, boys and girls perform equally well in most OECD countries. But in Greece and Turkey, girls perform better than boys, while in six other countries - the UK, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Mexico and Switzerland - boys do better than girls.

These patterns mirror the motivation and attitudes of students. Girls have much higher interest than boys in reading but are more anxious about mathematics. So while boys and girls show identical ability overall in problem-solving at age 15, girls fall behind when it comes to solving problems in a mathematical context.

The study attributes this difference to the ways in which problem-solving tasks are contextualised in school mathematics and to the anxiety that some girls express about their ability to do mathematics. Boys are more likely to take up computer sciences and girls to go into life sciences. Yet, contrary to expectation, the performance of boys and girls in life sciences is almost identical in PISA.

Teachers can do more to promote gender equality through strategies to build self-confidence and motivation and by reassessing their own expectations. But action is also needed at home and across society as a whole, the OECD study concludes.

"Many countries have reason to be proud that boys and girls are now performing equally well in key school subjects," commented OECD Secretary-General Agnela Gurria. "However, we cannot be complacent in the face of continuing gender stereotypes. Attitudes such as 'reading is not for boys' or 'maths is not for girls' must not be allowed to persist: they are too costly in terms of lost human potential."