Gender gaps merit more attention than they receive

An important innovation of 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was retained in the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is that schools be held accountable for the academic performance of specific student subgroups (e.g., low income and racial minority students) in addition to the aggregate performance of the entire student body. Indeed, a clear goal of the ESSA is to fully prepare all students for college and career success. Visible differences by race and income in intermediate educational outcomes (e.g., attendance and suspensions) and in access to the inputs that facilitate educational success (e.g., effective teachers) provide a starting point for conceptualizing policy responses to race- and income-based achievement gaps.

I argue policymakers should also begin to focus on gender gaps. Gender gaps in educational outcomes are equally important, yet fundamentally more difficult to conceptualize, for several reasons. First, students of both sexes reside in the same households and neighborhoods, attend the same schools, and sit next to each other in the same classrooms. This implies that gender gaps in educational outcomes are not driven by the same types of inequality of opportunity and access as other socio-demographic gaps.

Second, gender gaps do not systematically favor one sex in the way that students from high-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds systematically outperform less advantaged students: in the K-12 context boys outperform girls in numeracy and girls outperform boys in literacy and earn higher grades, while in the post-secondary context females attend and complete college at higher rates than males, but are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

Finally, gender gaps vary across the socioeconomic spectrum, suggesting differences in how the sexes respond to SES, school inputs, and out-of-school environments. For example, using matched administrative birth, health, and education records from Florida, a recent study compares opposite-sex siblings and finds evidence of a strong, arguably causal effect of SES on gender gaps that favor females in terms of school attendance, behavioral problems, diagnosed learning disabilities, performance on standardized test scores, high school graduation, and juvenile crime. Importantly, the study’s authors show that these SES differences in gender gaps are not due to gender-by-SES differences at birth, but rather that SES gradients in gender gaps evolve over time in response to post-natal environments.

As a result of these complexities, achieving gender equality in educational and labor market outcomes requires careful consideration of these nuanced gender gaps in educational success. Gender gaps sometimes receive short shrift in policy discussions, perhaps because of these complexities, despite the practical significance of these issues. For example, the female advantage in 9th grade GPA is about one third the size of the analogous black-white GPA gap. Similarly, the female advantage in college attendance and completion among recent cohorts is about half as large as corresponding gaps between students from in the first and second quartiles of the income distribution. There are longer run implications for labor market outcomes as well: gender gaps in college major choice explain a significant portion of the wage gaps in the U.S. and Europe.     

These nuanced gender gaps in educational outcomes, and their implications for longer run outcomes, highlight the importance of identifying the malleable sources of such gaps and raise several considerations for stakeholders charged with devising policies intended to close gender, racial, and SES gaps in educational achievement and attainment. To begin, stakeholders must clearly specify which gender gap, or educational domain, is of policy interest. In addition to the achievement and attainment gaps discussed above, there are also significant gender gaps in homework time, school suspensions, and non-cognitive skills (e.g., self control). Addressing these behavioral gaps may be particularly fruitful, as they are “skills that beget skills” and are associated with both academic and labor market success.

It is equally important that stakeholders acknowledge that neither socioeconomic nor gender gaps can be addressed in a vacuum, as evidence that gender gaps vary with SES is mounting. For example, gender gaps in non-cognitive skills and disruptive behavior are significantly larger in single-parent households. And while the Florida study finds that boys are more vulnerable than girls to low-quality schools, the majority of the SES gradient in gender gaps is due to family disadvantage. This suggests that low-SES boys may be particularly responsive to interventions applied outside the traditional school day (e.g., organized summer and after school activities).      

What, then, for policy and practice? Regarding the former, when numbers permit, accountability policies that include subgroup performance requirements ought to include race-by-gender and SES-by-gender subgroups. Regarding the latter, the targeting and evaluation of interventions ought to acknowledge that race-by-gender and race-by-SES heterogeneities exist. In sum, gender gaps and all their nuances merit more attention than they currently receive.