The Gapminder Foundation, a Swedish non-profit organization that aims to help eradicate common misconceptions and their consequences, identifies 10 common instincts that drive us to make mistakes. When Katharine Birbalsingh, the UK government’s social mobility commissioner and head of Michaela Community School, was recently asked to explain why girls at her school were less likely to take physics lessons, she demonstrated at least two of them.
What got her into trouble on social media was that she fell victim to the “generalization instinct.” She argued that the main reason Michaela’s daughters were less likely to choose physics at A level is that “there’s a lot of difficult math they’d rather not do”. Even if suggesting that A-level physics is harder than A-level math, which girls are much more likely to study than physics, is a good way to get a fight at a sci-fi convention , this may not be the best way to understand gender differences in school.
But the biggest and most dangerous mistake Birbalsingh made was to succumb to “the instinct of fate”: the assumption that things will remain much the same as they are today. Throughout the world, a large and growing number of women are entering higher education. Since 1960 in the United States, the real story of “gender differences in education” has been that of women surpassing men, not the other way around.
Even academic subjects that were once male enclaves have seen an increase in the proportion of women enrolled. In the UK, although A-level physique remains heavily male-dominated, it has seen slight increases in recent years. The number of girls studying computer science, another traditionally male-dominated academic discipline, rose from 9% to 15% from 2017 to 2020, while in 2019 female science students at A level outnumbered men for the first time. The future of stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may well look a lot like medicine, where the majority of new applicants are now women.
The difficulty, or not, of studying physics at A level is neither here nor there: everything indicates that the participation of women in higher education is increasing and that this growth extends even to subjects which have taken more time to disappear from historical male domination. , and the number of boys dropping out of college is also increasing. Although the UK’s data collection regime cannot say for sure, it is highly likely that the number of girls studying physics at Michaela Community School has itself increased year on year since the school opened in 2014.
Given that the past half-century has seen women embark on careers where gender differences were once seen as the inevitable consequence of physical gender differences, it seems unlikely that any remaining differences can be dismissed as the product of physical or cultural differences. More importantly, there is no compelling reason to believe that the onward march of girls, and with it the growing difference in outcomes for boys and girls, will change.
This is a definite advantage for girls whose choices were once limited by lack of qualifications, but for boys it may be less positive. Falling numbers of ‘unskilled’ jobs mean that young men who cannot access higher education face real financial challenges and may be left behind economically.
The growing tendency for graduates to marry other graduates may mean that economic disadvantage goes hand in hand with social isolation. And given that the evidence suggests that attending college is not only correlated with having more liberal views, but actively making people more likely to adopt them, a future in which most people have attended college but a large minority of men who have not done so is likely to be politically polarized.
The idea that the remaining academic fields where boys outperform girls are primarily the product of sex differences is not only hard to prove, it’s a gamble that can have very bad consequences for boys in particular and society in general. . Without specific intervention, the growing underachievement of male children may well worsen.
One of the reasons the Gapminder Foundation exists is that our tendency to ignore real trends in society can have all kinds of negative consequences. This may mean embarrassing yourself in front of a select parliamentary committee. But it can also mean neglecting new, real and important social issues because you commit to believing that an old one is still with us.