Tackling the Gender Gap


Until recently, the “gender gap” in schools usually referred to the lower success rates of girls. Today, however, there has been a reversal of the “gender gap” as boys are perceived to be at-risk, especially in reading and writing achievement. This is not just a Canadian phenomenon but echoes data from other countries. The OECD reports girls out-performed boys in reading in all 43 countries studied, although boys led in math in most countries and there was no obvious gender gap in science achievement. In most countries, girls had higher job prospect expectations for themselves.1 In Canada females not only score higher on reading and writing assessments, they also usually dominate the leadership positions in secondary schools. Women accounted for 59% of the degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded by Canadian universities in 2000, a proportion higher in 2000 than ever before.2

However, Looker and Thiessen (2003)3in their survey of 25,000 Canadian high school students found a digital divide in that boys tended to use computers and the Internet more often and to do a greater variety of activities such as spreadsheets and graphics programs than did girls. Females reported feeling less confident on computers and believed that computer skills were less important than did the boys in the survey. The researchers concluded that males would be more likely to get good jobs in the future because of their attitude to computer use and their diversity of computer skills.

What are some of the possible reasons for these gender differences in achievement and attitudes? Researchers suggest they include possible physiological reasons such as differences in brain wiring; preferences in learning style active versus verbal; types of materials chosen; teacher style; and perhaps even the volume and tone of a teacher’s voice.

Males and females report being less self-conscious and more focused on learning in single-sex classrooms. Teachers can adapt the teaching style, classroom layout, how to elicit responses, teacher voice level, manner of communicating, and materials chosen to maximize learning. Male academic success seems to improve

when: boys are seated at tables to allow freedom of movement; teachers are more aggressive at eliciting responses; there are more “teacher-led” activities with clear guidelines and activities; communication is “side-by-side” rather than “face-to-face”; kinaesthetic activities occur; and the material studied contains elements oriented to male interests. Most boys appear to prefer more hands-on, competitive instruction with smaller groups when group work is required. Females seem to thrive when: the classroom contains individual desks; the classroom is quieter and more controlled; the material is suited to their interests; and socially oriented cooperative larger group activities are used.

Single-Sex Instruction

A few Canadian public schools are using single-sex classes to address these issues. A forerunner in this approach is James Lyng School in Montreal, where single-sex classes have been running for five years. While impossible to factor out the effect of other reforms introduced at the same time, the overall results are impressive: absenteeism has dropped to 7 per cent from 20 per cent five years ago; approximately 80 per cent of students pass their final exams, up from 65 per cent and twice the number of students enter college.4

Other Canadian examples are more recent. Lake Trail Middle School on Vancouver Island has begun offering single-sex math and English classes for grade nine students; Cecil B. Stirling in Hamilton is giving parents the choice of single-sex or co-ed classes; and, single-sex English 11 classes will start in February 2004 at Salmon Arm Senior Secondary.

Extending the concept beyond the classroom are singlesex public schools and programs: three sites of the Nellie McClung Girls Junior High Program in Edmonton, Heydon Park Secondary School in Toronto and Alice Jamieson Girls Academy in Calgary.

Early Findings 

Single-sex instruction is based on generalizations as not all males or all females have the same learning preferences. However, several public schools in the US that have implemented single-sex classes are reporting academic success for both males and females. A major Australian study (ACER, 2001) of 270,000 students found performance was better in single-sex classes than in co-ed classes and that students also were better behaved and found learning more enjoyable. An English study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (2002) also found favourable academic achievement gains and that girls in particular were more likely to study gender atypical subjects in the single-sex setting.

Access to leadership opportunities, access to scholarships/ bursaries, university/ college enrollment patterns, and job earning potential are all factors that affect individuals, families and society. If the identified academic gender patterns continue without significant interventions, there could be social and economic implications. Experiments in single-sex instruction may provide some answers to the challenges every school faces in providing quality instruction for all students, male or female.

1. OECD. Literacy Skills for theWorld of Tomorrow, p.11. Retrieved from http://www.pisa.oecd.org/Docs/Download/ExecutivesummaryPISAplus.pdf
2. Stats Canada. (2003, July 8). University degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/ 030708/d030708a.htm
3. Looker, D. & Thiessen, V. (2003, June). The divide in Canadian schools: factors affecting student access to and use of information technology. Statistics Canada.
4. Peritz,I. (2003, February 1). Where the boys are. Globe and Mail, F8. Retrieved fromhttp://www.singlesexschools.org/montreal.