Are schools guilty of unconscious gender bias?


Teachers rewarded girls more than boys when estimating student scores for this year’s Leaving Certificate, according to a recent report by the State Examination Commission (SEC). And that wasn’t because girls did better than boys, the report suggests, but was in part linked to an “unconscious bias” in favor of girls.

Before the pandemic, the report notes, female students performed better than men on exams by 5.7%, 5.9% and 6.5% respectively on average in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The estimated scores saw the gap between the exams. genders will expand to 7.9% in 2020. and 7.7% in 2021. Overall, girls have outperformed boys in a record 35 out of 40 higher-level subjects.

“While the gap has widened in successive years over the period 2017 to 2019, the increase at these levels is too large to be considered a continuation of a trend,” the report says.

But the SEC’s finding was heavily criticized by three leading academics who are experts in gender and education.

“The SEC claimed there was unconscious bias at work, but presented no evidence for it,” said Pat O’Connor, professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at the University of Limerick.

“We know from studies by the Institute for Economic and Social Research that girls work and study harder than boys. The SEC took a leap in concluding an unconscious bias was the cause. They seem to have ignored the possibility that boys do less well because they sometimes live up to the stereotype of being disruptive and fuzzy while living in a society where those in positions of power are for the most part. men.

SEC data from recent years shows that girls in single-sex schools have the best academic performance on average, followed by girls in mixed schools, boys in single-sex schools, and then boys in mixed schools.

But there is also a substantial body of academic research showing better social and emotional outcomes for students in mixed environments, and that girls in single-sex schools experience greater stress around exams.

While research points to broad generalities, an individual student’s personality, learning environment, and home environment may be a better indicator of what is best for them.


Dympna Devine, professor of education at University College Dublin (UCD), says the gap in educational attainment at the end of secondary school exams is smaller in Ireland than in comparable countries.

“This may be due to the investment and support in learning and supporting children with additional needs, although there remain concerns about meeting the needs of high performing children in the system. Boys’ underachievement is largely influenced by social class – in particular, boys from poorer families, on average. “

Devine also points out that single-sex schools are less likely to be disadvantaged schools and more likely to be fee-paying or in wealthier areas, noting that class is an important factor at play.

“There’s also no question that girls tend to be more consistent in their application,” she says.

“Research, including a study conducted with the then Ministry of Children and Youth in 2017, shows that boys are drawing more attention to indiscipline and bad behavior, while girls have tend to be more stressed about their exams than boys. This is related to the fact that girls want to perform well in the system and although we need more research, teachers may have tagged their female students. [higher] because they’ve seen them apply more consistently over the years. I wouldn’t say it’s because of an unconscious bias.

The Childrens’ Lives study, carried out by Devine and other researchers from the UCD School of Education, also found that school closures during Covid were more difficult for boys than for girls because, despite the inequalities social and lack of access to technology and broadband in poorer countries or rural homes, girls were better able to apply distance learning.


Delma Byrne, associate professor of education and sociology at NUI Maynooth, says girls have done better, on average, than boys in the Leaving Cert for some time, but that there are differences in the results of men and women. women over the course of life.

“To be academically successful in the Irish context, with a high-stakes, points-based system, it can help to be compliant and do what the teacher needs of you,” says Byrne. “I am concerned that women who are doing well will be portrayed as a disadvantage compared to men, especially after so much domination of Irish society by men. Maybe girls’ work has been hidden by the dominant review system to this day, and maybe boys have done better before because the system has adapted to cramming. “

All three academics said concern about boys’ relative underachievement arises at a time when men continue to dominate at the senior professional level and earn more in their lifetimes than women.

“Male-dominated workplaces see the criteria for advancement in favor of men,” says O’Connor. “Women have a one in 13 chance of gaining a teaching position, compared to one in five for men. Across universities, this figure is consistent for men, but it varies from one in nine to one in 23 for women, indicating that it is not women who choose to [care for children]. Boys and men subconsciously absorb that the power structures of society favor them, so they think they should have a better chance without doing the work that girls and women have to do. And yet we never hear, in this conversation, the idea that if we want boys to do better in school, they should learn from and apply themselves to the girls’ book; I wonder how good it would be if we told boys that they should be more like girls in this regard. “

Your take: Why do women do better in school – but men dominate at work?
“I was a guidance counselor in a mixed school and I am now in a boys’ school. In my experience – and in very general terms – boys are not as emotionally educated as girls and may be less comfortable admitting that they need help. With the increasing work in schools to promote wellness and mental health, this is changing. But if you don’t take care of your problems, it will naturally affect other areas of your life, including studying. Internalizing problems means stress is coming out in the wrong direction. It’s like trying to hold a ball underwater: eventually your arms get tired and the ball breaks the surface in an unpredictable direction.

“Girls also mature a bit faster than boys, in general, and boys may be more likely to leave things until the last minute and pile up. But we do know that greater exposure to career guidance at a younger age – and this is happening now in the junior cycle – helps students focus on careers and results at a younger age.
Neil McCann, guidance counselor, St Vincent’s Secondary School, Glasnevin, Dublin 11

“People like to hire like them. I benefited when I had female leadership and it was negative when I had male leadership. Those who recruit the most are men.
Monica GW, via Twitter

“Maybe women just don’t want those kinds of jobs.”
Michelle C, via Twitter

“Being calm and unobtrusive and just listening is helpful in a classroom. At work, it makes you invisible at best [where] If you don’t stand up to say look how good I am and take credit for what you do, no one will notice.
@AiasIRL, via Twitter


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