Assessment, Equity, Research

What About the Girls?

In the midst of the current debates that produce the narrative of the “failing boys” and their literacy difficulties, it is not surprising that concern for the education of girls has fallen off the policy agenda. In fact, the positioning of boys as “the problem” by implication delivers the message that the girls are doing fine and enjoying remarkable success in school and in life. Some commentary even suggests young women’s achievements have been won at the expense of opportunities for young men – which only exacerbates the rigid gender duality at play here. It also serves to demonize female teachers and the “feminized education” they are accused of delivering. Does this “battle of the sexes” analysis hide more than it reveals? Undoubtedly it does, and as a result, the ability of educators to think and act carefully about how to improve the learning experiences of all students is impaired.

As Bob Gidney and Wyn Millar point out in their new, meticulously researched book, How Schools Worked, “hand-wringing” about the boys is not a new phenomenon. Educators in the first half of the twentieth-century were well aware that, in general, boys tended to do more poorly than girls in elementary school and were more likely to leave school at an earlier age. But Gidney and Millar also emphasise that there was a “girl problem”, too, as the retention rate for female students in the senior grades of secondary schools was lower than for males. Girls tended not to complete matriculation requirements, largely because “social expectations and restricted opportunities encouraged them to lower their sights and settle for something less.”[1] With this last statement Gidney and Millar remind us that understanding gender in relation to schooling is a much bigger and more complex question than simply looking at aggregated test results and drawing generalizations from them about boys or girls as categories of students.

Which girls? Which boys? and Other Important Questions

The thoughtful research literature that examines gaps in academic performance consistently emphasises that the fundamental issues lie not with simple gender differences but with differences among various ethnic and racialized groups and, most significantly, with social class and the effects of poverty. Analyses of test results – whether in Canada, the U.S., Australia, the UK, or elsewhere – support these conclusions. Anyone who has followed the story about Shannen’s Dream and the need for a new school in Attawapiskat (http://www.fncaringsociety.com/shannensdream) cannot seriously imagine that the First Nation students from that community, whether male or female, are provided with the resources and support that would enable them to have a fair chance at educational success, let alone on provincial, national, or international tests.[2] The 2011 Report of the Auditor-General of Canada reveals that “the proportion of high school graduates over the age of 15 is 41 percent among First Nations members living on reserves, compared with 77 percent for Canadians as a whole.”[3] Report upon report and study upon study reiterate the centrality of socio-economic circumstances to success rates in education, regardless of gender. Furthermore, the widening gap between the rich and the poor we are now experiencing can be expected to exacerbate the cleavages between educational haves and have-nots.

Report upon report and study upon study reiterate the centrality of socio-economic circumstances to success rates in education, regardless of gender.

At the same time, gender remains a salient factor in education, as in social life more generally. This point is made by Jo Ailwood, who argues that because the discourse about the failing boys centres on literacy achievement, it camouflages economic and social disadvantage. When the literacy failure of some boys is read as a disadvantage for all boys, and then used to pit boys against girls, it becomes a strategy that “serves to erase the literacy needs of many groups of girls who are ‘at-risk’ in terms of literacy [and] it also smokescreens the many boys who are succeeding at literacy.”[4] Ailwood goes on to argue that this focused attention on literacy effectively marginalizes all other discussion about the gendered nature of schooling more generally. Concurrently, a number of other scholars demonstrate that the failing boys/successful girls binary creates a whole new dynamic of tension and stress for girls and young women who are supposed to “have it all” and are seen as the perfect subjects of “a neoliberal program of individualization, autonomous self-hood and self-responsibilization for either success or failure in globalizing contexts of marketization, insecurity and risk.”[5]

A number of other scholars demonstrate that the failing boys/successful girls binary creates a whole new dynamic of tension and stress for girls and young women who are supposed to “have it all”

Successful “Have It All” Girls?

In 2010, Brescia University College in London, Ontario – which self-identifies as Canada’s only women’s university – developed a marketing campaign designed to recruit female high school graduates and update its image. As part of that effort, a back-lit advertising sign was placed in a highly visible location at one of the campus gates. It featured an enthusiastic young woman along with the slogan, “Her mind is as sharp as her heels.” This advertisement proved to be a flashpoint with regard to the visual representation of women and both current and former Brescia students, as well as other women in the university and wider community, weighed in on the issue. The ensuing controversy revealed a great deal about the contradictions of being an academically successful young woman in the new, highly competitive, market-oriented, and individualized world of late modernity.

While some alumni thought the ad played up stereotypes and reinforced traditional attitudes towards women, Sheila Blagrave, Director of Communications, Marketing and External Relations at Brescia, claimed, “It is meant to be a little light-hearted, it’s meant to show that there are people here who are strong academics and still may be in touch with their feminine side.”[6] In a nutshell, this comment captures what girls and young women face now that they are labeled the success stories of education – the “can do” or “have it all” girls. They must be both smart and feminine (as well as light-hearted). But as they “just do it,” Peggy Orenstein notes, girls report “a paralyzing pressure to be ‘perfect’.” They must get top marks, provide leadership in their school, be athletic, be thin, dress in the latest fashions, act in a caring and nurturing way and “please everyone.” Orenstein concludes that girls “now feel they must not only ‘have it all’ but be it all: Cinderella and Supergirl. Aggressive and agreeable. Smart and stunning.”[7]

Even girls in primary school feel the pressure to be “bright and beautiful.” For them, achieving academic excellence and performing femininity is a “precarious balancing act” made more difficult when teachers deny the actual intelligence of girls and attribute academic success only to uninspired, plodding, hard work, or characterize as “pushy” those girls with ambition and drive. Overall, on the basis of literature reviews and their own research, Renold and Allan conclude that “girls continue to hide, downplay, or deny rather than celebrate and improve upon their successes and feel the pressure to conform to normative cultural representations of (hetero)femininity.”[8] This pressure to offset success in school (and career) by being beautifully feminine makes young women a perfect target market for consumer products including cosmetics, designer brand clothing, shoes, accessories, and everything pink.

A recent full-page ad for Jimmy Choo stiletto heels asks, “How to let them know you mean business?” and answers “Say it with serious heels.” This is a telling example of how the faux feminism of “girl power” is adopted for marketing purposes while simultaneously playing on socially created insecurities about appearance and femininity. It illustrates the bargain that Susan Douglas argues women must make if they want to be successful in school, sports, and career. In return, she says, “we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands…” and so forth, a lesson little girls learn through fashion dolls and all girls learn through the media and wider culture.[9] The hyper-sexualization and pornification of increasingly younger and younger girls is an extension of this dynamic as girls come to learn that female bodies must be sexually attractive while, at the same time, they are led to believe that in a post-feminist world, if you don’t choose to participate in a “girls gone wild” ethos, there is something wrong with you.

Gendered Challenges in Education

Aggregated results from a small number of testing programs, which identify the literacy problems of boys as the only or the most salient gender issue in schools, distort the reality that girls experience significant gender-based challenges as well.

Aggregated results from a small number of testing programs, which identify the literacy problems of boys as the only or the most salient gender issue in schools, distort the reality that girls experience significant gender-based challenges as well.

Some young women, usually those who grow up in relative privilege, do achieve the academic and career success that now has become generalized to all girls as a result of the “boy crisis”. However, while there can be differences from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, evidence suggests that between three and four girls out of 10 experience real difficulties in school. In addition to the fact that no female can yet see herself or the history and experiences of women fully reflected in curriculum or textbooks, the emphasis on boys’ difficulties has moved educational resources in that direction, to the detriment of those girls who need additional support. Furthermore, a number of researchers also have suggested that school professionals often fail to identify girls who require additional help because they do not act out in classrooms; instead, they sit quietly in a corner, become truant, and then just drop out and disappear.

Gender is also a factor in school success in other, less conspicuous ways. Families rely more heavily on daughters to provide care for siblings or the elderly when it is needed at home, and this demand ensures that some girls miss more school than their brothers. Similarly, traditional beliefs about the lack of importance of girls’ education can create dilemmas and tensions for young women or can have the effect of forcing them into educational pathways not of their own choosing. And teen pregnancy, while declining in Canada, has particular academic, social, and health consequences for young women who continue to face daunting challenges if they seek to complete their schooling while raising a child or children.

A growing body of research also identifies the negative impact of violence in the lives of students, both male and female. However, there is a specifically gendered nature to much of the violence experienced by girls and young women because it is perpetrated through sexual rating, sexual harassment, date rapes, or beatings. Even when female peers are the perpetrators and engage in verbal taunting, shunning, psychological bullying, or physical punishment, the genesis of their violence is often found in a desire to protect hetero-normative relationships or to police standards of femininity. Data on “cutting” and other forms of violence against self, as well as the recent news that suicide rates are increasing in Canada for young females while decreasing for their male peers, are also indicators that literacy testing should not be the only measure we use to identify gender-specific concerns in our schools.


Lest I leave the wrong impression, I want to emphasise that I do not think that the evidence from test results is irrelevant and unimportant. We ought to raise questions about which girls and which boys struggle in school, which ones do well and which ones excel academically. Expanding the range of questions about who succeeds and who fails and, more importantly, asking why and how this happens, will allow parents, educators, and policymakers to construct more nuanced, sophisticated, and useful responses to the gaps in learning that have been uncovered. It might even lead to informed debates about the purpose of the educational endeavour and some necessary reflection on how an obsession with testing regimes has established an increasingly narrow definition of school success while hiding from view the ways in which the inequitable distribution of wealth, and dominant power relationships, produce patterns of educational outcome that are far from fair and just ­– for either girls or boys.

EN BREF – La conclusion, fondée sur l’analyse des résultats globaux d’épreuves normalisées, selon laquelle les problèmes de littératie des garçons sont le principal enjeu scolaire lié aux différences entre les deux sexes déforme la réalité que les filles aussi connaissent d’importants problèmes, quoique leurs difficultés ressortent parfois moins dans les tests uniformes. L’emphase mise sur les difficultés des garçons a accaparé des ressources éducatives au détriment des 30 à 40 pour cent de filles ayant également besoin d’aide. Des chercheurs ont démontré que l’opposition binaire « échec des garçons/réussite des filles » engendre une dynamique de tension et de stress pour les filles et les jeunes femmes censées « tout avoir ». Notre obsession de l’évaluation a entraîné une définition toujours plus pointue de la réussite scolaire. Elle a aussi occulté comment la répartition inéquitable de l’argent et du pouvoir crée des profils de résultats éducationnels injustes et inéquitables – pour les deux sexes.

[1] R.D. Gidney and W. P. J. Millar, How Schools Worked: Public Education in English Canada, 1900-1940 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012), 41-42.

[2] K. Reimer, “What Other Canadian Kids Have: The Fight for a New School in Attawapiskat,” Native Studies Review 19, no. 1 (2010): 119 – 136.

[3] Auditor-General of Canada, Status Report, June 2011, s. 4.17. Retrieved from http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/parl_oag_201106_04_e_35372.html#hd5e

[4] J. Ailwood, “A National Approach to Gender Equity Policy in Australia: Another Ending, Another Opening?” International Journal of Inclusive Education 7, no. 1(2003): 29.

[5] J. Ringrose, “Successful Girls? Complicating Post-feminist, Neoliberal Discourses of Educational Achievement and Gender Equality,” Gender and Education 19, no. 4 (July 2007): 480.

[6] “Brescia pulls ad over controversy,” The Gazette, 29 September 2010, http://www.westerngazette.ca/2010/09/29/brescia-pulls-ad-over-controversy/

[7] P. Orenstein, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 17.

[8] E. Renold and A. Allan, “Bright and Beautiful: High Achieving Girls, Ambivalent Femininities, and the Feminization of Success in the Primary School,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 27, no. 4 (December 2006): 459.

[9] S. J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done (New York: Times Books, 2010), 16.

Meet the Expert(s)

Rebecca Priegert Coulter

Rebecca Priegert Coulter is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario where she is currently Director of Aboriginal Education. She works in the areas of educational policy studies and equity and social justice. Her current research focuses on First Nations’ re-conceptualizations of educational assessment. 

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