Tell Them From Me: Gender and engagement

This report was originally published 13 March 2017.

Image: Tell Them From Me: Gender and engagement


The role gender plays in education has received much attention over the years. Research has tended to look at the ‘gender gap’ in education, particularly in relation to accessibility, attainment and the advantages boys have historically had over girls in these areas. Today, boys and girls have equal access to education and have equal chances of achieving at high levels (OECD 2015)1. Yet there is evidence internationally that ‘new’ gender gaps are emerging: boys are more likely to be disengaged from school than girls, have low skills and poor academic achievement, and to leave school early; whereas girls are more likely than boys to have less self-confidence when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and are underrepresented in maths, physical sciences and computing in higher education (OECD 2015; NSW Ministry of Health 2016).

This Learning Curve presents results from the NSW Tell Them From Me secondary school student survey conducted in March 2015 to analyse gender and engagement in NSW public schools to determine what (if any) impact gender has on engagement.

Key findings

  • Gender research in education usually focuses on achievement and in particular on ‘underachieving boys’.
  • Tell Them From Me data shows that there is a gender gap between girls and boys on most measures of student engagement and wellbeing.
  • Girls are likely to have higher aspirations and to behave better than boys at school, whereas boys have a greater sense of belonging and are less likely to feel anxious than girls.
  • The gender gap can narrow or reverse when looking at students from particular subgroups or types of schools.

Does gender matter?

There is debate in the literature over whether gender is an important variable in education.

Research from the field of psychology points to the fact that there is little variance between males and females across most psychological measures and that boys and girls are, in fact, more alike than different (Hyde 2005). Hattie, based on this and other gender research, says that the differences between males and females should not be of major concern to educators and that there is more variance within groups of boys or girls than between them (Hattie 2009). Gill (2013) concurs, stating that there are far greater areas of similarity than differences between boys and girls in terms of learning capacities.

Other research maintains that gender is important in education– particularly the ways in which students respond to assumed gender norms. That is, girls or boys may deliberately conform to gender stereotypes in order to fit in, or may even deliberately adopt the traits of the opposite gender in order to subvert existing gender stereotypes. For instance, boys may pretend not to be interested in school work as it is ‘unmasculine’ to look like you are working hard (Jackson 2003); girls may conform to gender stereotypes such as compliance and good behaviour, to fit in.

Gender and student engagement

There are surprisingly few studies that look specifically at gender and student engagement at school (Ueno and McWilliams 2010; Lieteart et al. 2014; Frawley et al. 2014), although gender as a variable of interest may arise incidentally out of studies looking at engagement more broadly (for example, Gillen-O’Neel and Fuligni 2013). There are also very few studies that investigate gender gaps using student voice as a source of evidence (Frawley et al. 2014). Most studies that do focus on gender in education appear to be more concerned with gender and achievement. A particular concern in the literature is the notion of ‘underachieving boys’: Is it an issue? Where is it occurring? How should we address it? (See, for example, Jha and Kelleher 2006; Younger and Warrington 2005; Alloway et al. 2002; Martino 2001; Epstein et al. 1998).

The few studies that look at gender and engagement specifically (and use student voice as a source of evidence), tend to focus only on certain aspects of engagement such as anxiety/ depression and/or wellbeing. For example, several northern European studies have looked explicitly at happiness and wellbeing among primary and secondary school girls and boys (Palsdottir et al. 2012; Lohre et al. 2013; Uusitalo-Malmivaara 2014). Various studies have also examined anxiety and depression amongst girls and boys at school. For instance, Tramonte and Willms (2012) look at the prevalence of anxiety and emotional discomfort for boys and girls in middle and high school in Canada based on the Canadian Tell Them From Me survey.

1 In developed countries.

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