There are always arguments and debates as to why a 'gender imbalance' remains in professions such as medicine, politics, and even teaching.

Why do men and women perform differently when it comes to intellectual tasks?

Exam results in Britain and Northern Ireland have just added an interesting insight into this debate.

For the first time in 10 years, boys have outperformed girls in mathematics at GCSE levels, the standard intermediate exam pupils sit at 15-16 years of age.

It made news that boys had this year gained more maths A-starred and C grades than girls, as there is a prevailing fear that in schoolwork, white working-class boys are now continually doing worse than any other group (the top-scoring group in most subjects continue to be girls from Asian backgrounds, who have a strong work ethic, strict parents and regard education as liberation).

But why did boys suddenly outperform girls at maths in this summer of 2009?

Because, it seems, the emphasis in this year's GCSE was on the examination process itself, and not as much on 'coursework', or homework and projects produced over the course of a school year. A pattern is now well-established in education. Girls do better when coursework and continued assessment are involved, because, to invoke a cliche, girls often like to work away steadily, are proud of their neat and well-organised homework, and like to plan in a methodical way.

Anyone who has attended a convent school recognises this cliche: any organisation run by women stresses neatness, tidiness, method, and, to some degree, conformist and more subdued behaviour.

Whereas boys, as school pupils, do less well at coursework, but may shine when presented with the challenge of a competitive examination under pressure — which has to be done quickly, forcefully, maybe even taking risks with the material. (It is still the case that at Oxford and Cambridge, male students obtain more firsts and more thirds, while women students get more seconds, and upper seconds.)

This is the real 'gender gap' in intellectual calibre: that men are both better and worse than women in academic performance. Women tend to be more consistent and reliable, and can often be counted on to work diligently: but males are the risk-takers.

I have always thought that measuring coursework is a fair approach to assessment, because, in a working life, what's important is not the flash-in-the-pan brilliance, but the consistency of work over time. But the British education authorities seem to have two concerns now about course work: one is that it favours girls over boys (on average), and the under-performance of boys is a real social headache. Boys who under-perform at school are more likely to turn to crime, drugs or dysfunctional conduct.

The second problem with coursework is that it is more open to parental assistance, if not blatant plagiarism, than an exam carried out under supervision.

Parents are widely suspected of assisting their children with school projects carried out as coursework — and, indeed, why wouldn't they? Conscientious parents have always tried to help out a bit with their children's homework, yet it is a matter of degree. "Helping" a little is one thing: more or less doing the work for the kid is another.

Plagiarism — especially downloading material from the Internet — is in any case rife. In my school-days, those tempted to crib or 'cog' from others were told: "If you cheat at schoolwork, you're only cheating yourself", but somehow this has now been alchemised into the more acceptable notion of drawing on information that is easily available at the click of a mouse.

Coursework itself is now to be replaced by 'controlled assessment' — longer projects and essays completed under the supervision of teachers, in another attempt to get the 'gender balance' right.

Controlled assessment will still give girls the chance to show their mettle over a more sustained period: while a calibrated exam system should encourage boys to perform under pressure.

The overall picture remains that although boys in the UK, have done better in maths this year, girls still outperform boys in most other subjects. Generally, girls are steadier pupils, and the parents of sons are sometimes heard to complain that education itself has become too 'girly', putting boys at a disadvantage.

What the evidence shows, though, is that male and females diverge in the way they approach learning and education. A generation ago, these differences were often put down to 'social conditioning' and the different ways in which girls and boys were reared, even from babyhood.

Famously, the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir said "One is not born a woman — one becomes one," in a thesis which claimed that women's under-achievements were down to social repression.

In recent years, however, there has been more focus on the process of brain development, and neurologists like Professor Susan Greenfield have turned the spotlight on how the human brain is wired up.

Male and female brains are not just differently conditioned by society: brain synapses in women function in a different way from those of men (allowing for more connection and 'multi-tasking', but permitting less intense bursts of concentration than the male cerebrum).

We don't want to go back to the days when it was assumed girls weren't good at maths and science, and boys were more backward in verbal skills and communication, but the British GCSE experiments are another revealing laboratory in examining gender differences: or what was once quaintly known as 'the battle of the sexes'.


Source: Irish Independent –