'Are girls under-represented in the boardroom for precisely the same reasons that they perform so well at school?'

The commitment to treat every student as an individual, regardless of gender, skirts around the deep-rooted structural inequalities that persist in our society

Kevin Stannard

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The publication of exam results brings in its train the predictable first-cut recriminations, and gender looms large.

A-level results showed a narrowing of the gender gap, with boys appearing to overtake girls in top grades. In many reports this was linked to A-level reform and linearity (erroneously, because girls still predominate in A*s in the reformed subjects).

Order was restored with the GCSE results a week later, headlines suggesting that marking reforms had benefited girls.

Two-thirds of the new grade 9s were harvested by girls (again, this is a simplification by aggregation – English counted twice through its two qualifications, language and literature, overwhelming the male majority in mathematics).

At the same time, Ucas reported the growing gender gap in progression to further education, with teenage girls now a third more likely to go to university.

More revealing about these news items, if read online, are the comments they provoke in the discussion strands. Imbibing unadulterated readers’ views is not to be recommended for the faint of heart – it is, in the memorable words of politician Peter Mannion in The Thick of It, like "opening the sh*t room door".

The success of girls at school seems to provoke the ire of many internet warriors. Let’s be charitable and assume that they want to see gender equality in educational outcomes. Would that satisfy them? Would the gender battle have been fought to an honourable draw?

Gender inequality televised

Coincidentally, a two-part documentary aired on the BBC, focusing on gender stereotyping in primary school. It shone an interesting light on the way stereotypes are unwittingly reproduced at an early age through a triangulation of pupils, parents and even teachers.

But what was really interesting was the programme title: No More Boys and Girls. Some reports suggested that the programme sought to "take gender out of the classroom" – the inference being that gender blindness brings gender equality.

Worthy and well-meaning attempts to create a level playing field by ignoring gender as an issue can only go so far. The equally honourable commitment to treat every student as an individual, regardless of gender, skirts around the deep-rooted structural inequalities that persist in our society.

Much ink has been spilt on the apparent disjunction between girls’ success at school and university and female under-representation in the highest career echelons. The asymmetry is easily explained if we consider that one might be partially the cause of the other.

There are good grounds for thinking that success at school might help create the conditions for a lack of later success at work, because behaviours that are encouraged in education are not those that bring success at work.

In this light, any closing of the gender gap in exam performance is beside the point.

The BBC programme points to much more worrying, much deeper inequalities of gendered perceptions of skill, character, intelligence and social role. These operate over the long term, easily out-distancing the effect of stellar grades. Exams are a sprint: career success is a marathon.

That race remains rigged.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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