Girls’ performance in mathematics now equal to boys (UNESCO report)
Deepening the debate on those still left behind, an annual UNESCO gender report, analysed data from 120 countries in primary and secondary education to offer a global picture. The findings show that in the early years, boys perform better than girls in mathematics but, this gender gap disappears later.
This research confirms that the gender gap in learning has closed even in the poorest countries. And in some countries, the gap is now reversed. For example, by grade 8, the gap is in favour of girls in mathematics by 7 percentage points in Malaysia, by 3 points in Cambodia, by 1.7 points in Congo and by 1.4 points in the Philippines.
However, biases and stereotypes are still likely to affect learning outcomes. Even though girls catch up in mathematics in upper primary and secondary education, boys are far more likely to be overrepresented among the highest performers in mathematics in all countries.
In middle- and high-income countries, girls in secondary school are scoring significantly higher in science. Despite this advantage, girls are still less likely to opt for scientific careers, indicating that gender biases could still be obstacles to the pursuit of further education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Girls outperform boys in reading
While girls perform well in mathematics and science, they perform even better in reading. More girls achieve minimum proficiency in reading than boys. The largest gap in primary education is in Saudi Arabia, where 77% of girls but only 51% of boys in grade 4 achieve minimum proficiency in reading.
In Thailand, girls outperform boys in reading by 18 percentage points, in the Dominican Republic by 11 points and in Morocco by 10 points. Even in countries where girls and boys are at the same level in reading in the early grades, as in Lithuania and Norway, the gap in favour of girls rises to roughly 15 percentage points by age 15.
Notes to editors
The researchers examined studies by the Latin-American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education (LLECE), Programme D’Analyse Des Systèmes Educatifs de la CONFEMEN (PASEC), Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics (SEA-PLM) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) surveys.
Most of these data have been released in the last 18 months but refer to the situation just before the pandemic struck. We know that learning outcomes were severely affected in those countries that closed schools for long periods and were unable to offer remote learning opportunities to the majority of their students. Comparable learning assessments capturing the situation post-COVID will not start being published for another year and even then, mainly for relatively wealthier countries that offered learning continuity. It will take some time before we can have a truly global picture on the long-term impact of the pandemic, including its gender impact.