Sugar and Spice (and your homework’s very nice): Some brief notes on gender and homework

This blog stems from a book I am writing on homework to be published by Routledge in 2021. It offers a very brief analysis, but not solutions. Essentially, food for thought.

According to Department for Education (DfE) data and research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it is clear that girls in the UK have been outperforming boys at GCSE for some years and that more girls than boys enter higher education in economically developed countries (OECD, 2014; 2015). In 2018, for example, girls were still outperforming boys according to the DfE (2019) in line with this longitudinal trend, especially in terms of achieving a strong pass in English and maths.

One reason given for this by sociologists is differing attitudes towards coursework, which is arguably questionable now as most GCSEs no longer have a coursework requirement. That said, Mitsos and Browne (1998) argue that girls tend to spend more time completing coursework and take greater care of schoolwork outside of the classroom. This trait is arguably found in some academic studies on homework. Warrington, Younger and Williams (2000; cited in Halam & Rogers, 2018) report that girls’ approach to homework is more conscientious, well-planned and neat in comparison to boys. Other studies back this up, for instance, Hallam and Rogers (2008) provide evidence that girls spend more time on homework than boys.

One downside to this trend – other than boys not doing as well – relates to longer term mental health issues from the pressure girls put themselves under to achieve. Anxiety is a particular concern, which will arguably impact on achievement in the long run (Rogers & Hallam, 2006). However, other studies have suggested these issues are less pronounced (Hallam & Rogers, 2018).

Another reason for more positive attitudes towards homework amongst girls than boys is the so-called ‘feminisation of education’. Here, the dearth of male teachers at primary level and the tendency of children to read with mum as opposed to dad has meant that some boys see education as a feminine pursuit. Add to this the ‘crisis of masculinity’ in which boys are unsure of what it means ‘to be a man’, then perhaps the reasons why girls are more likely to complete homework – and achieve better results in school – is actually an issue with boys wider engagement with education.

In similar vein, perhaps it boys over confidence that acts as a barrier to homework completion. Why do homework when you think you don’t need to? For example, Barber and Odean (2001) found that boys overestimate their ability whereas girls underestimate theirs. Moreover, Francis (1988) found that quite a few boys in her study thought it would be easy to do well in exams without having to put much effort in; the same wasn’t true of girls. Interestingly, when boys fail many tend to blame the teacher or their the own apathy as opposed to their academic ability (or their lack of homework).

Researchers have also suggested that boys are more likely to participate in sports involving large social groups, which – unlike smaller groupings of girls – makes homework harder to complete (Harris, Nixon & Ruddick, 1993; cited in Hallam & Rogers 2018). It could also be suggested that boys spend more time out and about socialising than girls do. Obviously, more time spent socialising will mean less time for homework, especially on weekday evenings.

‘Laddish’ behaviours in school have also been identified as impediments to the academic progress of boys. These learnt behaviours often act to protect the self-worth of many boys, especially in certain social contexts. Here, ‘laddishness’ may be prompted by both a fear of academic failure and a fear of the ‘feminine’. Jackson (2003) suggests that openly rejecting academic work serves a dual function for some of the boys she studied. Firstly, it enabled them to act in ways currently consistent with ‘hegemonic forms of masculinity in their schools’. Secondly, it provided the boys with an excuse for failure. Of course, these behaviours will impact homework compilation in addition to other areas of school life.

Therefore, whilst it is clear that girls are outperforming boys in many OECD countries, it is worth noting that the variations in homework compilation are very slim and – as always – contestable. For instance, some researchers argue that the impact of homework on achievement is very close for boys and girls and, therefore, almost insignificant in terms of data (Eron and Henderson, 2011). It does seem, however, that girls spend more time on homework and are conscientious towards it; this will have some impact, but could well be mitigated by spending too long on the homework, especially if we consider a curvilinear optimal amount (about 10 minutes per year the pupil has been in school per evening). Here, researchers would suggest more studies are needed for more conclusive evidence.

References

Barber, B. & Odean, T. (2001). Boys Will Be Boys: Gender, Overconfidence, And Common Stock Investment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. 116, pp. 261-292.

Browne, K. & Mitsos, E. (1998) Gender differences in education: the achievement of boys, Sociology Review, September, pp. 27-31.

DfE (2019). Key stage 4 performance (revised). DfE: London. Retrieved from: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/key-stage-4-performance-2019-revised [accessed 01/06/2020].

Eren, O. and Henderson, D. (2011), Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework? Economics of Education Review, 30 (5), pp. 950-961.

Francis, B. (1998). Power Play: Children ‘s Constructions of Gender, Power and Adult Work.
Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

Hallam, S. & Rogers, L. (2018). Homework: The evidence. London: UCL Press.

Harris, S., Nixon, J. and Rudduck, J. 1993. School work, homework and gender. Gender and Education. 5 (1), pp. 3-15.

Jackson, C. (2003). Motives for ‘Laddishness’ at School: Fear of Failure and Fear of the ‘Feminine’. British Educational Research Journal, 29 (4), 583-598.

OECD (2014). Does homework perpetuate inequities in education? PISA in Focus, No. 46, Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD (2015). The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, PISA. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Rogers, L. and Hallam, S. (2006). Gender differences in approaches to studying for GCSE among high achieving pupils. Educational Studies, 32 (1) pp. 59–71.

Rogers, L. & Harris, S. (2008). Gender differences in perceptions of studying for the GCSE. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 14 (8), pp. 795-811.

Warrington, M., Younger, M. & Williams, J. 2000. Student attitudes, image and the gender gap. British Educational Research Journal 26 (3), pp. 393-407.

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