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The gap in achievement between boys and girls

Academic achievement
Trends in drop-out rates
Attitudes to school
Trends in enrolment in college and university

There are many signs of progress in educational achievement these days. Canadian students performed well on recent international assessments of academic achievement, high school drop-out rates have fallen, and rates of participation in postsecondary education in Canada are among the highest in the world.

So all is well – or is it?

While these are indeed signs of progress, there is also growing evidence that not all groups in society are benefiting equally from the gains being made. One group that stands out in particular is boys. On several key indicators of educational achievement, the evidence suggests that boys are lagging behind girls. The reasons for this are not fully understood. However, it is useful to review the evidence in order to gain a picture of where differences between boys and girls are greatest.

A great deal has changed in the past quarter century, with most OECD countries making great strides forward in improving education and labour market outcomes for females. In fact, on many indicators, it is now males who are more likely to lag behind.

Academic achievement

In the academic achievement assessments carried out by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for a large international sample of 15-year-olds, girls performed significantly better than boys on the reading test in all countries and in all ten Canadian provinces. In math and science, few significant differences were found when girls’ scores were compared to those of boys. Canada, France and Germany were the only countries where gender differences in math achievement were significant – but those differences were small, certainly much smaller than those observed for reading. At the provincial level, gender differences in achievement in math and in science also were not significant.

These results are consistent with the findings of a number of other studies as well. The evidence of gender differences in math and science tends to be somewhat varied, but the differences are small. That is not the case for reading, however, where the gap is persistently large.

Why does this matter? Is sitting down to read really essential for success in life? Well, it matters a great deal.

The concept of ‘reading literacy’ encompasses a wide range of skills and abilities used in everyday life, at school, at work, and at play (see Box 1). Reading schedules, learning from manuals, completing application forms, and grasping key issues of the day all require not just the technical ability to read words, but the more abstract ability to understand them, interpret them, and assimilate the concepts they convey.

Box 1 : Measuring Reading Literacy

The concept of ‘reading literacy’ in PISA has three dimensions, reflecting:
  • The type of reading task – including proficiency in retrieving information, understanding texts at a general level, interpreting them, reflecting on the content and form of texts in relation to their own knowledge of the world, and evaluating and arguing their own point of view.
  • The form and structure of the reading material, including not just prose, but also lists, forms, graphs and diagrams.

  • The use for which the text was constructed – for example, a novel, a letter, official documents, manuals, and textbooks.

Having strong literacy skills is essential for success in school. That in turn is a key determinant of the range and type of options available at the end of high school, including access to postsecondary institutions and to programs of one’s choice. Without strong literacy skills, labour market choices are limited. Individuals without university, college or trades training after high school are more likely to experience unemployment or to be in temporary jobs or in jobs that pay poorly and that offer little chance of advancement.

Further, data from the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) show that individuals who have jobs that require little by way of literacy experience an erosion in the literacy skills they do have – a ‘use it or lose it’ relationship. When determining who gets training, employers tend to choose individuals with strong literacy skills, further widening the gap and limiting options for those who have poor literacy skills.

Trends in drop-out rates

High school graduation is the absolute minimum requirement for accessing many opportunities, including college, university, and many jobs, especially jobs that offer decent pay and working conditions. Reducing the high school drop-out rate has been a priority of school systems across the country for many years now. And, while more remains to be done, a great deal of progress has been made.

A drop out – or what is referred to as a high school leaver – is an individual who is not enrolled in high school and who has not completed the requirements for a high school diploma. Measuring such individuals as a percentage of youth in a particular age group gives the high school leaver rate. Typically, the high school leaver rate is calculated for 20-year-olds, in order to take account of the fact that some young people either are still in school or have returned to complete the credits needed for graduation after having left for some period of time. Offering such ‘second chance’ opportunities is one way in which school systems across the country are addressing the need to help youth achieve at least the minimum level of education they need, so that their futures include options.

Between 1991 and 1999, the high school dropout rate decreased from 18% to 12%; however, males continued to drop out of school at a higher rate than females. In 1999, 15% of 20-year-old males had not completed high school, compared to 9% of females.

Even though some have dropped out of high school, some will return to high school to complete their secondary studies at a later time. Others may enrol in courses or programs outside of secondary school, including programs at the postsecondary level. By the age of 22, 27% of youth who had dropped out of high school by age 20 had taken advantage of the second chance system; 11% returned to high school, while 16% went on to pursue postsecondary studies without obtaining a high school diploma.1

While school-related reasons dominated the decision to drop out, other factors also played a role – for some young men wanting to work was an important factor, as was pregnancy and child rearing in the case of some young women.

Attitudes to school

The concept of school engagement takes into consideration the way in which young people participate and identify with school. The 1999 Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) asked youth aged 18 to 20 a number of questions about various aspects of their engagement with school.

Females were more likely than males to show attitudes and behaviours indicative of greater academic engagement in school (see Table 1).2 They were more likely to report getting along with teachers, finishing their homework on time and being interested in what they were learning in class. They were less likely than males to think that school was a waste of time.

Generally, dropouts revealed attitudes and behaviours indicative of less academic engagement in school compared to high school graduates. Male dropouts, in particular, appear to have been less engaged in school. They were least likely to have spent a lot of time completing their homework, and if it was completed, they were less likely to have completed it on time.

A larger share of school graduates (89%) than dropouts (60%) remarked that they got along well with their teachers most or all of the time. Again, male dropouts were less likely to be positive in their assessment.

Overall, male dropouts, in particular, appear to have been less engaged and more dissatisfied with their academic experience. They were clearly less likely to be “interested in what [they were] learning in class” and more likely to believe that “many things [they were] learning in class were useless.”

For young men and young women assessing their own skills, clear gender differences are apparent. Higher proportions of young women than young men judged their skills to be very good/excellent in reading and writing and to a somewhat lesser extent, in communication skills. In contrast, larger proportions of young men rated their problem-solving, math and computer skills as being stronger than young women did.

Table 1: High school engagement indicators (percent)
  Graduates Dropouts
Total Men Women Total Men Women
% Most or All of the Time:  
I got along well with teachers. 88.6 85.0 91.8 60.1 53.4 71.2
I did as little work as possible; I just wanted to get by. 14.9 20.8 9.4 34.5 39.6 26.0
I paid attention to the teacher. 82.1 76.8 87.0 60.1 54.8 68.6
I was interested in what I was learning in class. 60.4 54.8 65.7 43.6 38.3 52.2
I felt like an outsider or like I was left out of things at school. 3.5 3.7 3.3 14.2 13.5 15.1
I completed my homework on time. 80.4 74.0 86.3 48.1 39.7 61.5
% Agree or Strongly Agree:  
I thought that many of the things we were learning in class were useless. 38.7 40.4 37.3 55.4 59.1 49.5

I was treated with as much respect as other students in my class.

91.7 91.5 92.0 74.4 76.5 71.0
I had friends at school whom I could talk to about personal things. 94.5 93.4 95.5 84.0 83.9 84.3
I liked to participate in many school activities, for example clubs, sports, drama. 62.1 61.8 62.5 37.8 41.4 32.0
School was often a waste of time. 13.2 16.6 10.0 36.3 39.8 30.4
People at school were interested in what I had to say. 90.5 89.9 91.0 78.8 80.3 76.4
% 3 hours or Fewer:  
How many hours each week did you spend on homework outside class, during free periods and at home? 37.0 45.9 28.9 62.7 68.1 53.8

Source: At a Crossroads: First Results for the 18 to 20-Year-old Cohort of the Youth in Transition Survey. Catalogue number 81-591-XIE.

Trends in enrolment in college and university

In 1999-2000, women accounted for 54% of full-time students enrolled in college. At the university level, women have traditionally had higher participation rates than men in part-time undergraduate studies; by 1998-1999, women also accounted for the majority of full-time undergraduate students. Women’s share of undergraduate enrolment increased from 51% in 1988-1989 to 58% in 2001-2002. There was a slight gain in women’s share of enrolment at the graduate level as well, with that share rising from slightly under half in 1988-1989 to reach 51% in 2001-2002.

In terms of overall university enrolment in 2001-2002, women outnumbered men in: education; visual and performing arts and communications technologies; humanities; social and behavioural sciences and law; business management and public administration; physical and life sciences and technologies; agriculture, natural resources and conservation; and health, parks, recreation and fitness. Men remained in the majority in mathematics, computer and information sciences; architecture, engineering and related technologies; and personal, protective and transportation services.3

There have also been large increases in the percentages of young women graduating from university. Graduation rates, which measure the percentage of graduates among people at the ‘typical’ age of graduation, generally rose for both men and women across all fields of study. However, by 1998, the bachelor graduation rate for women was 26% compared to 21% for men. At the master’s level, the female graduation rate almost doubled in seven years, rising from 3% in 1991 to 6% in 1998, when it surpassed the rate for men (5%). Only at the doctoral level did the graduation rate remain higher among men than among women (1.2% compared to 0.7%). For both men and women, the rates doubled in the seven years leading up to 1998.


On a number of counts, the evidence suggests that more young men than women are experiencing difficulties with school. Young men, particularly male dropouts, appear to be less engaged in school and they continue to dropout of high school before completing the requirements for graduation at a higher rate than girls. Young men rated their problem-solving, math and computer skills as stronger than young women, but their assessments of reading and writing were weaker than those of women. This is consistent with the results of standardized tests that show higher literacy scores for girls compared to boys. Finally, girls are more likely than boys to go on to post-secondary education; in all but a handful of fields, women outnumber men in university enrolment; and university graduation rates are higher for women than for men.

The PISA assessments carried out in 2000 focused especially on reading and writing literacy, including a more limited number of questions relating to skills in mathematics and science. The 2000 PISA found little difference along gender lines in math and science. New results, based on the 2003 PISA assessments, will become available later in 2004. This time, PISA focuses especially on skills in mathematics. Analysis of those results will shed further light on whether a gender gap is evident in this field. Science will be the focus of the PISA assessments in 2006.


  1. In and out of high school: First results from the second cycle of the Youth in Transition Survey, 2002. Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics – Research papers. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE2004014, free.

  2. At a Crossroads: First Results for the 18 to 20-Year-old Cohort of the Youth in Transition Survey. Catalogue number 81-591-XIE, free.

  3. See “ University enrolment.” The Daily, Friday July 30, 2004.

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