Girl Scouts compete in the USS California Science Experience at Naval Surface Warfare. US Navy via Wikimedia


Something is not working well in the educational systems of the world — that is, if you believe in gender equality. A report out this month from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – the rich list of countries — tells us that girls and boys “remain deeply divided in their career choices.”

The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour and Confidence report is based on the OECD’s latest PISA study, an exercise which tests 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance on mathematics, science, and reading in member and non-member nations.

It says that, while many countries have made progress in narrowing gender gaps in education, new gaps are opening up. Boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to be weak in the core subjects of reading, mathematics and science. But girls struggle to “think like scientists” – that is, to apply scientific learning to new situations – and lack confidence in their ability to do maths.

“Less than one in 20 girls considers a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) compared to one in five boys, despite similar performances in the PISA science test,” the report laments. “This matters because careers in these fields are in high demand and among the most highly paid.”

The key to this anxiety about the gender gap, by the way, is the phrase “high demand”. Any rhetoric to the contrary, this is not primarily a “gender equality” issue for governments but one of economic necessity: with ageing, and in some cases declining populations, women have become essential to the technology workforce.

Gender bias, or innate differences?

And who is to blame for the fact that we don’t have enough lady engineers and computer programmers? Or that boys would rather play computer games than do their homework? Pretty much everybody: parents, teachers and employers are all influenced by gender bias, “conscious and unconscious”.

Generalising about the 34 countries of the OECD and its partners, the report says parents are much more likely to expect their sons to work in science and technology careers (STEM). Parents and teachers are not addressing the disengagement of boys from education sufficiently.

Teachers tend to give girls better marks in maths, not always because they are better but because they behave better, and anyway they need to teach maths in a way that would help all students but girls in particular. And employers show an innate bias towards boys in the technology field.

There is no suggestion in the OECD report that there is any innate difference between girls and boys themselves that might account for the persistence of the gender gap. A former Harvard president was verbally hung, drawn and quartered for suggesting that there might be “issues of intrinsic aptitude” for science even among the brightest girls, although a debate rages in scientific circles about male and female brains. Basically, the naysayers seem to be winning that argument, in the media anyway, with their claim that what brain scans show is just the result of the “drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping”.

Whatever the cause, there clearly are differences in the way that girls and boys learn at present, and this is one of the reasons that single-sex schooling persists and has even seen a resurgence over the last couple of decades. There is evidence, too, that both girls and boys do better academically in such an environment (girls particularly so), partly because some obvious behaviour problems are eliminated, but also because teaching styles and lesson content can be adapted to the different strengths and weaknesses of either sex – encouraging the former and challenging the latter.

Gender egalitarians hotly contest the validity of this evidence, insisting that segregation entrenches gender stereotyping because it highlights gender difference, and that it does not prepare students for “the real world” where the sexes mix all the time — as if students did not already spend most of their time outside of school and in that world.

There is one gender heretic, however, who thoroughly disagrees with them about schooling.

An Icelandic experiment in single-sex education

Margret Pala Ólafsdóttir is an Icelandic educator who in the 1980s began developing ideas for kindergarten education that became known as the Hjalli method. Bringing a gender perspective to what she saw as a chaotic system, she separated boys and girls into different parts of the school, put them in uniforms, threw away conventional toys and books and set about addressing the strengths weaknesses of either sex.

Though her approach was controversial at the beginning, she has since won recognition for the Hjalli method in the form of a prize the country’s Minister of Equal Rights (1997) and The Knight’s Cross of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon from the President of Iceland for innovation in Education (2006). In a TED talk she gave in 2013 she said that 17 kindergartens and 15 primary schools following this model.

The interesting thing about Pala is that she is a gender feminist right to her finger tips, as papers she has authored with names like “Fighting the burden of conventional gender roles” show. But she is fighting gender with gender, convinced that gender stereotypes can only be broken down by dealing with girls and boys separately.

This is how she explains it in the TED talk.

Good girls vs important boys
. In the typical co-ed class girls are affirmed for behaving well, but en masse: “Ah, the girls are so good.” But the boys, largely because of their unruliness, are getting individual attention: “John, sit down. Peter, read your book.” So the girls are learning that they are not as important as the boys, although they behave well and get good grades. The boys are also learning, “we are important”, even though they are losing their educational self-image and “a lot of them stop believing in themselves.”

Nurtured on gender stereotypes. By the time they come to pre-school girls and boys have already imbibed gender stereotypical ideas from their environment, especially from the media. The mixed class setting only reinforces this. Boys look at the girls to see how not to behave: “I’m not supposed to be interested in my schoolwork, like them.” And the girls similarly: “Boys are loud and they take up space. I’m not going to be like them.”

Brains and experience. It’s a scientific fact that there are developmental differences between the sexes, but if their brains are different at a certain age this is largely a matter of timing, not of some essential difference between male and female, Pala seems to suggest. Brains are formed by experience as well as nature, and it’s the experiences she wants to change.

Compensation for what’s missing. Segregating the sexes (in separate departments of the one school) brings an automatic gain for both – they get the same attention for a start – but it is not enough. They then need an education that will “compensate for everything they haven’t got in their upbringing, because of their sex.” This means, for example, training boys to take care of younger ones or to wear pink, and girls to be more daring, frank and open-hearted.

Learning to be friends. There is, however, an element of co-education. Each day there is a time for interaction between the boys and girls (using games, projects) during which they learn to show respect for one another, talk to one another and develop friendship. “If we don’t train it, it’s not there,” says Pala. (Evidently families can’t do this because of the pervasive sexism in society.)

For both sexes “compensation” means tempering the competitive spirit with training in co-operation and helpfulness, encouraging independence by breaking norms (entering a room through a window, painting directly onto a table instead of paper…) fostering courage and resilience. These goals are assisted by banning standard text books (from the age of 10 children learn individually using iPads), commercial toys (with their gender messages) and other products, and substituting creative play and invention.

Pala reckons it is working.

The gender gap in Iceland

Might this kind of single-sex schooling meet the requirements of both sides of the single-sex debate, and close the gender gap? Is it making a difference to Iceland? With a population of only 326,000, two-thirds of it clustered around the capital  Reykjavík, two to three dozen kindergartens and schools might well have an impact on the nation.

There are other factors, of course. The government has a big focus on scientific research and development, and the schools generally turn out students particularly proficient in maths and reading.

Whatever the reason, the latest OECD report notes that Iceland is one of only a handful countries where at least one in three graduates in the fields of engineering, manufacturing, construction and computing was a woman. It is also, together with Norway and Sweden, a country where high-achieving girls outperform high-achieving boys in science when they have similar levels of self-confidence about science. Girls in Iceland also outperform boys in maths, although their advantage has narrowed since 2003.

On the downside the country’s share of low achievers who are boys is larger (66 percent) than the OECD average (61 percent), which makes closing the gender gap look like a zero sum game.

Unanswered questions: biology, complementarity

Margret Pala would not want that to be the case. She wants a “mixed society” where people can “live together and play together without paying a high toll for their gender.” And to a large extent one has to agree with her. We do not want conformity to mass media stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. We do want girls to be confident, daring and able to master science if they are so inclined. We do want boys to be co-operative, caring and to value academic work at least as much as video games.

But how mixed is “mixed”? Does it mean that androgyny is the ideal – some kind of balance of the masculine and feminine in every individual? If that is the aim of an education system, whether single sex or co-ed, we should mistrust it.

What value are we going to accord to the stubborn facts of biology? Doesn’t the fact that the continuation of the human race depends on sexual complementarity make other kinds of role differentiation reasonable up to a point? Apart from today’s demographic and economic demands, does it really matter whether as many girls as boys graduate in STEM subjects?

Without answering those questions it is difficult to see how any kind of education system can know what it is doing.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

The OECD’s 2015 PISA results:

Infographic summarising findings:

Full report:

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet