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Studies show girls perform better academically

Thabo Mohlala

A study by Stellenbosch University’s department of economics found that girls outperform boys at both school and university education.

Titled: The ‘Martha Effect’: The compounding female advantage in South African higher education, the study said girls learn to read much quicker than boys do – a global trend particularly in all middle and high-income countries.

According to Drs Nic Spaull and Hendrik van Broekhuizen, who formed part of the research group on Social-Economic Policy in the department of the SU’s department of economics, generally, girls do better than boys.

“On average girls actually do better than boys. They learn to read much quicker than boys do (which is true of pretty much all middle- and high-income countries). In South Africa girls also perform better in mathematics,” say Drs Nic Spaull and Hendrik van Broekhuizen from the research group on Socio-Economic Policy (ReSEP) in SU’s Department of Economics.

The researchers looked at a sample of nationally-representative surveys conducted from 2011 to 2015. It showed that girl learners trump boys in both literacy and numeracy. By grade 4, the report noted, girls are a full year of learning ahead of their male peers in reading and by grade 5 about 40% of a year of learning ahead of boys in mathematics. 

Curiously, though, this all get reversed when they reach matric as boys outshine girls in both maths and science. The researchers went further with a view to finding out if the trend of girls performing far better than boys holds at university level.

Through the use of data gleaned from the Higher Education Management Information System, the researchers looked at all the 2008 grade 12s  (112 402) who went to university and tracked them for a six-year period (2009-2014). They also relied on the detailed information based on the results of all students collected by both the departments of basic education and higher education and training.

Noted the researchers: “We found strong evidence of a large female advantage that continues to grow at each hurdle of the higher education process. To be specific, relative to their male counterparts we find that there were 27% more females who qualified for university, 34% more who enrol in university, 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree. This despite there being roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the start of school.” 

They also noted the strikingly high drop-out of boys from matric to university degree attainment, saying “For every 100 females in matric there are only 85 males in matric. And for every 100 females in matric only 8 females will complete an undergraduate degree within six years, with even lower numbers for males (only 5 males).”

The researchers further found that “that this large female advantage remains after controlling for school-level performance, and exists for all subgroups of race, age, socioeconomic status, province of origin and institution attended.” 

They also dismissed the argument that girls do better because they tend to choose ‘easier’ fields of study than boys. The researchers examined 19 fields of study and found that “females are significantly more likely to get a degree in 12 of the 19 fields (often by substantial margins), and are significantly less likely to get a degree in five of the 19 fields.” This is not because of lower completion rates once they are in but rather due to the fact that female learners do not access these traditionally ‘male’ programs.  “Only in Engineering and Computer Science do girls do worse than boys once they are accepted to the programme,” the researchers observed.

They said one of their most interesting findings was that females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to drop out than their male counterparts (including in traditionally ‘male’ fields like Engineering and Computer Science). This even after controlling for field of study, race, age, socioeconomic status, location or institution, adding it is not a phenomenon confined to South Africa only.

“The emergence of a female advantage at school and at university is a global trend among middle and high-income countries. In the 33 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – mainly a club of rich countries – 58% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded to women. In South Africa it is 61%,” said the researchers.

They said although they cannot explain yet why this is the case, “the best international evidence points to the fact that girls perform better when it comes to things such as self-control, self-motivation, dependability, sociability, perceptions of self-worth, locus of control, time-preference and delayed gratification”.

They added that any conversation about ‘gender equality’ needs to take into account the disadvantage faced by boys at school and university, but also why this reverses when one moves into the labour market.

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