Are girls cleverer than boys?

Daily Mail, 16/12/2004

Commentators' views on one of the most persistent debates about modern education.

Statistics show that girls out-perform boys at all Key Stages. Schools Minister Stephen Twigg is looking for ways in which we can help boys to catch up. And commentators are predicting that women like Marjorie Scardino, CEO of Pearson publishing and the first woman to head a FTSE100 firm will soon be the rule rather than the exception. But are girls actually cleverer, or are they simply better at exams?

Jenni Murray, broadcaster, author of That's My Boy!, A Modern Parent's Guide To Raising A Happy And Confident Son and mother of two boys, asks: 'Why do we continue to perpetuate this myth that girls are brighter than boys? It achieves nothing positive. It merely redefines the battle lines in the sex war when we should be doing everything possible to draw up peace treaties.'
'All the serious academic studies to which I referred for my book point to the unreliable statistical analysis that's pushed at us each year as the exam results come out.'

But Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the education select committee, believes that women are more intelligent than men. 'Some schools have put crazy policies into place - separating girls and boys for English classes,for instance, and giving boys Touching The Void to read - based on a clear assumption that they'll need to know how to survive on a mountainside, while girls read Pride And Prejudice. Pity the poor girl who has an adventurous bent or the boy who would adore Jane Austen,' he says.

'Nor is it true that the brightest girls are taking over professions such as medicine or veterinary science because they're cleverer than boys. I spoke to deans of admissions and principals of colleges who are desperate for more boys to apply. They don't, they tell me, because boys now see those professions as undervalued and underpaid and don't want to do them. And, as a job begins to be seen as a female and caring one, it's automatically downgraded.'
Professor Peter Tymms is director of the curriculum evaluation management centre at the University of Durham, which provides schools and colleges with information based on examination results. He has two sons. He says: 'The question of whether women are brighter than men depends on what we're talking about. If we're talking about the ability to read people's emotions, then women are undoubtedly better than men, on average. Women also tend to be better at verbal skills. This may have an evolutionary basis. As the physically smaller and weaker sex, women might have needed the ability to argue their way out of situations.'

'But men are far better than women at visual, spatial skills. The ability to visualise things in three dimensions favours them. There are, however, other areas where men and women are very similar; in a general maths test, for example, they perform similarly. Yet, if you look at the groups who do the worst at maths, most are men. And if you look at those who do the very best, it is also men who dominate.'

'This is a universal finding, consistent across age groups and countries. We've found it with children starting school and with A-level students. Men's ability levels are more variable, while women's are more homogeneous.'
'What all this tells us, in short, is that men and women are pretty similar in terms of ability. But we tend to focus on the slight differences between them and study them endlessly. This should not be our priority. What we should be concentrating on is trying to improve the educational level of the country in general.'

Geoffrey Wansell is a 59 year old divorcee who lives in central London with his son and daughter. He says: 'Are girls brighter than boys? On the surface you might think so, but I'm not so sure. My daughter-Molly, now 21, certainly got better-A-level results than my son Dan, who's 23 -- three As, in fact -- but he was every bit as pleased with his slightly less exalted collection, and set off happily for the Edinburgh College of Art, where he is now taking a second degree. My daughter, by contrast, went to London University, struggled to settle down, and changed her course after her first year.'

'And that's my point. Girls may perform better in examinations than boys -- but that success doesn't always translate into happiness, or achievement. In fact my suspicion is that, as time passes, boys develop more emotional intelligence -- and the capacity to cope with the complexities of life -- than girls.'
'Girls certainly work harder, but they can also become much more emotional, whizzing ahead at one moment, in despair the next. By comparison, boys are slower, and lazier, but they tend to stick at it, and gradually overtake their female companions.'

'That was certainly the wisdom when I was a teenager in the Fifties, and I'm pretty sure that's still the case today. But we should celebrate the fact that girls are now acknowledged as being every bit as bright as boys. We've come a long way in the past two decades.'

'In the early Eighties, I can vividly remember visiting a well-known prep school, and finding all the girls sitting at the back of the classroom. They'd been sent there by the male master, who believed they wouldn't need the history he was teaching the boys at the front. He didn't quite say: 'They'll only be housewives anyway', but he came perilously close. Thank goodness that attitude has disappeared, and good riddance to it. No one could be more in favour than I am of making sure girls get every bit as many educational and professional opportunities as boys.'

'It's just that I'm not sure they are naturally more intelligent. The boys will almost certainly overtake them in the end - and I don't think anything will ever stop them.'

Dr Pat Spungin is founder of, one of the UK's leading websites for parents. A senior lecturer in child psychology, she taught at Middlesex University and has one son and two daughters. She says: 'It's definitely true that girls are outperforming boys at school. It's not because they're brighter but simply because GCSE and A-levels all play to girls' natural strengths. The simple truth is that you can't separate intellectual from social and emotional development. All three are interlinked.'

'Girls' verbal skills are far superior to boys'. Little girls speak earlier than boys and are more articulate. As literacy skills are the basis of all the Arts subjects, such as History and English, and, even to an extent, the science too, it has a ripple effect on their success at school.'

'Far from evening out the discrepancies, recent changes to the educational system play even more to girls' natural strengths. Exam questions where the candidate has to 'think' himself into the mind of a 13-year-old servant in a Medieval baronial hall or offer agony aunt-style advice to a Shakespearian character all need empathy. Boys are immediately at a disadvantage. Girls are also happier to put in the extra time to memorise information so they can produce the short, punchy answers examiners want.'

Girls mature faster. They are ready to settle down at senior school and tackle a more complex curriculum. At 11, boys are embarking on the whirlwind of puberty and are more interested in messing around than working hard. Natural skills, which have nothing to do with brain power, carry girls through at school. It's hardly surprising they outshine boys.'

'So what's really sad is that we aren't doing enough to help girls succeed once they leave school. They are inclined to lag behind at university. Boys are more likely to be bolder thinkers. They will take that extra step and think laterally, and they reap the rewards. Our school system needs to encourage girls to think more boldly and be confident enough to take short cuts. Girls are capable of giving much more at university and in the workplace.'

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a professor of pharmacology at Oxford and the first female director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. She doesn't have any children. She says: 'I don't believe women are necessarily brighter than men, but I definitely believe women are only now acquiring the confidence to show just how bright they are. I'm convinced that being bright isn't just about having a huge IQ. Brightness is made up of a complex range of skills - stating your case logically, having the courage to disagree and say so confidently, asking questions, being persistent, seeing connections between different things, not taking No for an answer, not being embarrassed to admit you're wrong. Women have at least their fair share of all these talents. But most of us still don't have the confidence to believe in ourselves or show just how bright we are.'
'We have been dogged by low selfesteem, and that has held us back. After all, a woman can be the most intelligent person on the planet, but who will ever know if she hasn't got the confidence to express her views?'

It's a huge generalisation, but men are much more likely to push themselves forward. They are likely to appear brighter - simply because they're more self-assured and confident. Most women in high positions still feel they've got there by some fluke and that, one day, they'll be found out. Every single professional woman I know suffers from this so-called 'impostor syndrome.' How many men suffer the same anguish? Very few, I imagine.'

I don't believe there's such a thing as a male or a female brain. The only broad distinction is that the motorway that connects the two hemispheres is denser in women's brains. There's a theory that this explains why women find it easier to ' multitask' than men.

But I do believe that your expectation of what you can do defines how much you achieve. If someone keeps telling you you're stupid or will never achieve as much as a man, it affects what you accomplish.

Dr John Marincowitz is headmaster of Queen Elizabeth's School, Barnet, North London, where this year the 127 sixth-form boys passed 91 per cent of their A-levels at grades A or B. Dr Marincowitz has a son and a daughter. He says: 'It's unhelpful to analyse performance along gender lines. It's much more constructive to consider whether young people are more or less motivated to achieve - that is what makes the difference. In my view, when boys are motivated they do as well, if not better, than girls. It is this motivation, not their ability, that is the key.'

Queen Elizabeth's is a boys' grammar school, yet we are consistently in the top five per cent in the country's league tables. The boys at my school regularly outperform girls of a similar ability -- girls in both the state and private sectors. Teenage boys don't apply themselves just because they are told to by their teachers and parents. They only do it when they understand and internalise the relationship between what they're doing at school and what they want to do later on.

The ethos and culture of my school supports this. The boys have a curriculum that is relevant and goals that are attainable. They do work experience and extra-curricular activities that expose them to the world of work from Year 10 onwards. They have an image of themselves in the future and understand what they need to achieve and why. We live in a world where people are chosen for jobs on merit. Boys need to see this.

In addition, boys do better in single-sex schools. In mixed schools, outgoing, sociable characters can be sucked into acting like Jack-the-lad in order to gain status. When they don't have a female audience, there's no need to perform or misbehave.

All young people go through a self-conscious period, when they form new ideas and try new things. This is far easier for boys to get through without girls giggling or undermining their confidence further.