Gender Inequality In Education

March 8, 2022

Since as far back as the 1980s, stats have consistently shown that girls on average are achieving better results than boys at school. In 2021 5% more girls than boys received A* grades at A-level and in the UK girls are 35% more likely to apply to university than boys. And yet men, as we all know, continue to enjoy an advantage in the professional world - just 5% of the top 350 companies in the UK are headed by women and the gender pay gap stands at 15%.

What on earth is going on? If it isn’t academic performance, what is at the root of these inequalities? An enormous part of socialisation, which all too frequently is based on outdated concepts around gender, happens during our school years. What we learn during childhood and adolescence has a significant impact on how we perceive ourselves and others. So, beyond grades, what other aspects of school life may be leading to a less than level playing field between men and women? And what can we do to actively combat gender bias within classrooms?

Primary School

The gap in treatment that boys and girls receive begins at a very young age, right from primary school. Exposing them to different toys and games, as remains the case in many schools, means gender stereotypes exist from day one of their education. Teachers often speak in a softer tone to girls than boys and the books young children are encouraged to read in their own time are often very gendered. 

A lower rate of male teachers (97% of primary school teachers are female) means boys often lack male role models in their day-to-day lives. Equal representation within the professional sphere is important across the board and teaching should be no exception. A lack of male primary school teachers can embed the stereotype that it is only women who can have careers based on caring and nurturing; a gendered view of aspirations is already being formed and pupils haven’t even reached secondary school yet!

Going further into the question of role models, parenting imbalance - i.e. a lesser involvement by fathers in their children’s schooling - is all too common with school-age children. This is often involuntarily reinforced by schools themselves; for instance, when teachers assume that a child’s mother will be the person with whom to discuss the child’s performance, or advise a child to “ask mummy to sign this form”. The school system needs to be actively encouraging fathers to up their involvement, from reading to homework help.


Moving on a few years, many of the stereotypes that men and women come to internalise, sometimes for life, begin at secondary school. It is at this age that pupils are at their most impressionable. When we look back on our school years, most will of us be able to recall the gender divides that tinged our classroom experiences.

Whether it was a tacit understanding that boys shouldn’t be friends with girls or that boys were rowdy and ill-disciplined while girls were quiet and hard-working, few can say they emerged from their adolescent years unaffected by the gender-based clichés that were established during this time. The notions that ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘girls can’t do sport’ would inevitably have been floating around, even in what many think of as a post-feminist society.

Teacher Bias

Not only are stereotypes like this incredibly limiting, shaping the kinds of character traits and aspirations that boys and girls feel are available to them, but they can have very serious consequences regarding how teachers perceive certain behaviour.

For instance, research has shown that sexual harassment is less likely to be taken seriously in schools than other forms of bullying. Girls are more frequently reprimanded by their teachers regarding their appearance or a lack of neatness than boys here. Teachers may also be less likely to show tolerance towards girls being loud or rowdy in class; a tendency which often extends to parents too.

So, teacher bias, whether subconscious or otherwise, is something that needs to be addressed, because, even if they don’t know they’re doing it, teachers can involuntarily reinforce harmful attitudes that lead to a very limited view of gender. Currently teacher bias is not being given the attention it needs as only one in five teachers in England and Wales has received training on recognising and tackling sexism.

Subject imbalance

Another area of education that reflects our unbalanced view of men and women’s suitability for certain areas is subject choice. In 2020, girls accounted for only 21% of students choosing to study computer science GCSE. Similarly, only 30% of further maths students are girls. As you’d expect, these numbers correspond with the disappointing proportion of women in tech industries - only 17%.

This is a serious problem. The tech field needs to be populated with diversity and innovation in order for it to become the best it can be. Achieving equal representation within the industry is the only way we can expect this vital field to move in a direction that reflects as wide a scope of society as possible.

So, what can we do to encourage more girls to opt for STEM subjects at GCSE, A-level and eventually degree level? Schools need to prioritise pitching these subjects to girls early, ideally starting right from age 11. As part of this, they should invite industry specialists who represent all the diversity the tech and science industries should be aiming for to talk to pupils in schools. Girls hearing women talk about their experiences in fields that may not have traditionally attracted women is vital if we mean to break this dangerous cycle of gender inequality within academia.

The Curriculum

Radical feminists suggest there are simply too many vestiges of patriarchal values within the curriculum. For example, a disproportionate representation of nuclear families or motherhood over fatherhood in set texts. Feminist movements, in their full and rich history, must be covered in subjects beyond those that only a minority of pupils choose to study at A-level, such as politics and philosophy.

Effective media analysis also needs to be systematically included on the syllabus, allowing young women to recognise harmful ideas about women’s bodies and sexuality for what they are.

It is also important that we move past gender segregation within sex education. Topics such as menstruation being confined to girl-only spaces perpetuates the sense of shame that too often exists around female bodies. Empathy and a solid understanding of girls’ pubescent experiences are essential in fostering the respect that men need to have for women and their bodies. And it goes without saying that consent classes are non-negotiable.

Let’s do better!

We hardly need to remind anyone of how severe the consequences of gender inequality can be. The link between gender inequality in schools and gender-based violence is well documented and unbalanced views of men and women can damage boys as well as girls, not to mention those who identify as gender diverse. In fact, suicide is the main cause of death for males between the ages of 20 and 49 in the UK.

In order to break down the limits women - and men - find themselves faced with on a daily basis, we need to address the institutional sexism that begins during their school days. Moving beyond learned behaviour isn’t easy but with rigorous examination of our education system, we can do it.



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Ella Burgess

Ella is a content writer at Tutor House and explores a range of education centred topics, having previously spent time teaching English while living abroad. A foreign language enthusiast and lover of text art, she is devoted to words in all their forms. She'll happily immerse herself in anything wordy from conceptual art to vintage murder mysteries.

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