The latest review of research into the achievement divide by Cambridge academics suggests schools need to concentrate on tackling differences between male and female learning approaches.
National test results show girls outperform boys from seven and may even start school with a lead. However, the gap is narrower in maths than in English.
Changes that have taken place at GCSE in recent years appear to have disadvantaged boys further. The performance of girls in public exams taken at 16-plus began to outstrip boys from the late 1980s.
The report says factors favouring girls may include changes in the curriculum that require greater attentiveness and greater willingness to work.
Boys may respond to more traditional approaches that require memorising abstract facts. They appear to be more willing than girls to sacrifice deeper understanding for correctness achieved at speed.
Girls do better on tasks that are open-ended and require pupils to think for themselves. The paper quotes a study carried out in 1987 that found girls doing well at maths with a project-based approach, but under-achieving with a traditional approach.
The gender gap may also be a product of boys' perception of some subjects, particularly English, as being "feminine".
The report says: "This may be because boys are not yet mature enough when reading is taught and girls learn faster, and also because it is women who usually teach children to read or are seen to read books or to write in the home."
Girls make greater progress between the ages of 11 and 16 than boys. They have begun to match boys in GCSE maths and science, but many more boys choose science or science-related A-levels or vocational courses. Boys dominate technology at A-level.
The study says: "The ways in which pupils are grouped, the ways in which their work is assessed, the curricula they encounter, the teaching styles they experience, the role models they are offered, the expectations teachers have of boys and girls and the ways teachers reward and discipline them can all affect the size and nature of the gender gap."
Recent Research on Gender and Educational Performance by Madeleine Arnot, John Gray, Mary James and Jean Rudduck, OFSTED reviews of research series, price Pounds 10.95.