Gender Differences in Academic Settings

college prep

 This past weekend, college senior Sarah Fuller made history when she became the first woman to participate in a Power 5 football game. As Vanderbilt’s place-kicker, she delivered the second-half kickoff during the Commodores’ game against Missouri – kicking down some incredible barriers at the same time.

As Fuller made history in the “boys club” of football, it sparked a conversation about the common differences between genders, both in sports and in the classroom. While no gender can be painted with a broad brush – and these natural differences shouldn’t be looked at as “pros” and “cons” – recognizing some of these common discrepancies can be key in becoming better, more self-aware students overall. General tendencies and averages are certainly not limits or destinies… simply things to keep in mind so you can start bucking these trends, like Fuller on the football field!


Differences in Achievement

From an early age, girls and boys show different attitudes toward education in general. According to a study done by Ohio State professor Claudia Buchmann, 62 percent of 8th grade girls said grades were “very important,” while only 50 percent of boys said the same. Additionally, girls often find the classroom setting a bit easier to navigate, thanks to certain behavioral and social skills more common in girls than boys.

Perhaps it’s this attitude that results in girls finishing high school with, on average, higher grades in English, math, social sciences, and science courses, according to a 2014 report from the ACT, Inc. Interestingly enough, however, these differences aren’t as consistent on the actual ACT, suggesting the grade differences may be due to gender differences in day-to-day behavior (like study habits, submitting homework on time, motivation, and so on). In other words: differences in achievement can ultimately depend on your work ethic, motivation, and attitude – not your gender. If you buckle down, the sky is really the limit!


Differences in Course Selection

You may have heard the myth that boys naturally excel at math and science, while girls excel in the humanities and social sciences. While this idea is exactly that – a myth – there are some observable differences in the courses that males and females are choosing. According to a study from researcher Catherine Freeman, boys and girls tend to gravitate toward subjects and courses “conventionally associated with their gender” when they get into high school – meaning literature and the arts for girls and math and science for boys. As a result of these selections, “By the end of high school, this difference in course selection makes a measurable difference in boys’ and girls’ academic performance in these subjects.”

In a way, these differences can be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy: society often says boys are stronger in STEM subjects, and girls are stronger in literature, social sciences, and the like. This can discourage boys and girls from stepping outside their “natural” skillset – but this should be encouraged! There is little to no research indicating that there are major cognitive differences in these varying subjects, so sign up for the courses that interest you – you’ll excel at what you study!


Differences in Classroom Behaviors

Various studies have shown that boys are much more likely to raise their hands in class. Another study showed that teachers “interact with boys more often than with girls by a margin of 10 to 30 percent,” perhaps because their male students are raising their hands and speaking up more.

In a lecture to Standford students, Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg reiterated the fact that girls and women can often be more hesitant to assert themselves in classroom settings than males, saying “My message is raise your hand, sit at the table, own your success.”


Acknowledging these classroom gender trends is beneficial – not because they represent universal truths or even say anything about the innate abilities of males and females. Instead, they can serve as motivation or reminders for all students: so much of your success is dependent on your choices and actions! Choose the classes that speak to you, not the ones that you think you’re “supposed” to choose. Raise your hands. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, and never be afraid to march to the beat of your own drum.