by Meg Adem

How gender stereotypes can restrict boys’ learning

Cute boy and girl learning playfully in frot of a big blackboard

You’ve likely heard the clichés: girls are stronger at reading and writing; boys are better at maths. Now growing research indicates that our gender-based stereotyping can actually restrict our boys’ (and girls’) learning and potential. It’s time to separate the facts from the fiction.

The impact of negative stereotypes

Research conducted by the University of Kent in the UK has found that, from a young age, children think boys are academically inferior to girls.

Researchers asked children aged between 4 and 7 to match scenarios such as “this child really wants to learn” or “this child doesn’t do very well at school” to silhouettes of a boy and girl. Children were more likely to match the positive stories to the silhouette of the girl and negative stories to the boy.

Interestingly, researchers also found that the children thought adults shared these stereotypes. The researchers went on to find that telling boys they would do well improved their performances. Conversely, girls’ performances were not affected by what they were told.

This suggests that boys are more vulnerable to negative stereotyping.

Separating facts from the fiction

In the classroom, the gender gap actually decreases significantly when teachers mark anonymously (The Economist, 2015). Research shows that the gender gap in reading drops by a third when teachers do not know the gender of the student they are marking.

Where does our gender bias come from?

The OECD regularly reports on the performance of boys and girls in schools globally. Their data does show that boys outperform girls in maths, and the genders are equal in science.

However, for students who struggle at school, the gender gap widens. Boys are 50% more likely to fall short of the basic standards in reading, mathematics and science. The media reports the OECD data as ‘the gender gap widening’, and there has been talk about a ‘boy crisis’ in education. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA) there has always been a gender gap in school performance. In an analysis of school data from 1914 through to 2011 across 30 countries, girls tend to outperform boys in primary and middle school, with the gap decreasing in high school and university.

But why are girls outperforming boys?

Girls spend more time on homework

The APA suggests that stereotypes held about boys performing well in science and maths causes parents to encourage their girls to study harder and longer. The OECD backs this up by estimating that girls spend at least one more hour a week on homework than boys. Homework is positively linked to better performance in education (Cooper, 2006).

So, socially, girls are encouraged to work harder at school.

Boys also tend to emphasise performance over mastery of the content. The APA have found that girls tend to study in order to understand the content, whereas boys tend to focus on the final grades.

Girls read more than boys

According to the Northwestern University in the US, girls have greater activation of the language areas in their brain than boys. However, there is also evidence to show that girls are encouraged to read more than boys. From a young age girls are also encouraged to converse and express themselves more clearly than boys.

The brain is plastic, so the question is: are girls more proficient at reading due to their brain? Or is their brain more proficient because they had had more training by their parents from an early age?

“Boys admitted that they didn’t spend a lot of time on their homework but (and more importantly) they weren’t exactly sure how to achieve their goals. They weren’t sure how to learn.”

Cute boy and girl learning playfully in frot of a big blackboard

What parents and educators can do 

  1. Encourage boys to focus on the learning, not the grades

At a recent coaching day at school, I asked the boys in my tutor group what their goals were. Many said they were aiming for an 80% average across all subjects.

When we started to investigate how they might achieve those goals, the boys admitted that they didn’t spend a lot of time on their homework but (and more importantly) they weren’t exactly sure how to achieve their goals. They weren’t sure how to learn.

Through his meta-analysis of thousands of studies, Professor John Hattie (creator of Visible Learning) found that micro-teaching is one of the top five influences on a child’s education. Micro-teaching involves showing children strategies on how to learn, which includes:

  • how to take notes
  • how to guess what a test question might be
  • how to summarise
  • how to identify key ideas
  • how to revise (think flash cards, concept maps, illustrating notes with pictures, reading notes out aloud).
  1. Hone in on homework

Research shows that homework has the greatest positive impact in high school (and less influence in primary and middle school). So the time to really urge your son to complete his homework is in his high school years. Help encourage your older son to do his homework by:

  • helping him create a schedule/routine
  • helping him with skills (like the micro-teaching strategies above) but not the content – don’t do his homework for him
  • encouraging and prompting him to do his homework each night.
  1. Encourage reading

Fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, comics, newspapers. It doesn’t really matter what he’s reading, but the more variety the better. According to the OECD, reading proficiency is a basis for all subjects and contributes to overall academic performance. Click here for more great tips to get your son reading.

 Most importantly, abandon stereotypes

It’s time to release ourselves from our preconceived notions about what boys and girls are ‘good at’. Stereotypes limit our thinking as adults and, most importantly, place limits on our sons. By abandoning our stereotypes, our kids will benefit, no matter what their gender.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School 


Meg Adem is a science and psychology teacher, writer and athletics coach at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. This article is about


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