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A Radio National discussion (May 29 2015) stated that statistically girls outperform boys academically and referenced research suggesting that this has something to do with working parents:

Provocative new research suggests that the outcomes for girls and boys can be different when parents go back to work, in particular mothers.

The big question is WHY?


The assertion that girls, in general, now outperform boys academically is evident from high school results and university entrance numbers.  It's self-evident that this is a huge reversal from the past, when boys overwhelmingly predominated. It's also clear that this dramatic change took place during the latter half of the twentieth century. 

In either case this confirms what we all know.  Contrary to the assertions of some postmodernists - girls and boys are different.  Anyone who has sent a young child to preschool can confirm that from the moment they can crawl, while girls and boys can play at anything, they are interested in the various activities and toys provided to different degrees. As a general rule (there are individual exceptions) girls soon become: more social; more considered; less excitable; and less physically combative.

In 1950 the number of girls taking a degree in anything but 'Arts' at an Australian University could fit in a mini-bus - probably driven by a man, as very few women could drive.  Today driving is a common skill and more girls graduate than boys in almost every discipline but as Julia's graduation in Medical Science last year demonstrated there are still some outstanding boys at the top of the heap.

To shed some light on this profound social change I want to go back a year or fifty.

One lunchtime in 1968 I was strolling with my new fiancée across the campus of the Australian National University discussing the then current debate on the subject of equal pay for women.  I remember that discussion well because out of it came a short paper that I wrote that was well received by my section head - my first 'win' in my new job as a research officer within the Department of National Development in Canberra.

Naturally Brenda was outraged that women were still, as a matter of policy, paid significantly less than men for identical work under Australian pay awards.  The minimum wage for a woman was unlegislated but in practice little more than half the male basic wage.  Even female teachers doing identical work got paid substantially less.

This position had been fought for by the Trade Unions across all awards and was generally supported by both government and employers.

The historical Union argument was that men were the principal breadwinner in families and so society needed to support families by paying men more than women.   Women were expected to marry and to be at home caring for children.  Thus many jobs, like airline stewardesses and many government jobs, actually precluded married women.  Women in these jobs had to resign upon getting married.  Naturally, women could not contribute to superannuation either. 

In the fifties the wife of a well paid man who took a job could be frowned upon as depriving some breadwinner of a position.  Single men and women were also socially suspect.  Even gay men often married women to avoid social exclusion.

But this was an old social structure that was becoming less tenable in the sixties as women demanded equal rights, freedom of reproductive choice and the right not to be bound to a disliked man in marriage.  

My great-grandmother had been an active campaigner for female suffrage, my grandmother a British politician and my mother a member of the National Council of Women in Australia.  I agreed with Brenda that the sexist world opposed by our parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents was intolerable and must end - foolish not to. 

But I pointed out that the prevailing culture in which many women saw paid work as a brief period between school and family would change fundamentally if equal pay was implemented.

My argument, later expanded in my paper, was simple.  Wage discrimination acted against women 'working for life'.  It encouraged most women to give up paid work as soon as possible after marriage.  So with equal pay more women would work for longer.   In this new world a couple, of say teachers, with equal incomes would be very well off.

My paper had some numbers that showed that due to progressive taxation a single man would need a very high income indeed to take home the same net income as a couple earning no more than the average male wage.  For example, two teachers would be able to economically out-compete almost any sole income family. These new high income families would be able to afford a whole range of new goods and services not available to single income families.  But the most immediate impact would be on housing.  

Initially house prices would rise as two income couples out-bid even high salaried single income families at auction. Soon all young couples would find that they both had to work if they wanted to out-bid other couples at a house auction.  Professional women who had salaries the equal of their spouse would fare the best.  But these couples would find that they both needed to continue to work for many years to support their mortgage.  Remember that interest rates were around 17% pa back then and rising.

No longer would or could women be content with some stop-gap employment in a shop or office before starting a family.  They would soon need and thus demand a salary similar to that of their spouse and have to accept the responsibilities that went with it.  In due course, many more girls would be attracted to an equal professional education in medicine, law or engineering and prospective partners would be chosen, in part, for their similarity in salary.

As we strolled the campus I held forth about a 'brave new world' in which even unwilling women would be forced to accept full equality with men - for example those silly girls of our acquaintance who had played with bridal dolls and gone to 'finishing school', who dreamt of becoming a housewife: of joining the tennis club or tea circle; of greeting their hardworking, highly successful 'hubby' each evening with a cocktail; of their immaculate 'dream house'; of lovingly making his dinner of meat and three veg; and of their the three perfect children - born painlessly under a total anaesthetic - now already fed and tucked-up in bed. 

Henceforth this would be an even more out of reach, and increasingly impossible, dream. Pure schadenfreude on my part.

A year later, in 1969, the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission made its first 'equal pay' decision.  This required that women receive equal pay for equal work where these women did 'equal work' alongside men - for example teachers.  As many jobs were segregated, for men or women only, this had limited impact for example in the textile industries, nursing or secretarial services.  So in 1972 the law was broadened to require 'equal pay for work of equal value'. 

This, together with later reforms towards equality, allowed the progressive desegregation of many 'female only' jobs like nursing and secretarial work and allowed women to move into many previously male-only jobs like government, engineering and the sciences.

But what could women working have to do with the differential performance of girls and boys at school? 

In my own children's generation the girls and boys were equally motivated at school.  But their schools were dramatically different to my schools in the 1950's.  For one thing class sizes were halved, for another, rote learning and corporal punishment (the cane) were gone. But perhaps the most obvious change was teacher gender. 

At Thornleigh Public School my classes generally consisted of twenty-plus girls and a similar number of boys. 


Butter wouldn't melt in our mouths
Nevertheless, I don't think there was a single boy who was not caned at least once by a teacher.
But Mr Perkis knew we could all read - books were read in sequence around the classroom and
we could all instantaneously tell him what are nine sevens or how many feet there are in a mile or pounds in a ton:
63, 5,280 and 2,240 - Sir (don't hit me) - see I can still do it without considering - and I only flinch a little.
The girls were seldom hit (except Margaret Batty) but answered just the same.
Maybe that's what's changed - boys need it whacked into us?


After infants, all the teachers of these large mixed classes were men, except for Miss Furness who took Second Class.  She organised maypoles, a long forgotten British institution, for which there were special sockets set into the girls' playground, and demanded that we all learn to polka, somewhat more Bohemian, to the crackly strains of her infamous portable windup gramophone.

At Normanhurst Boys' High there was less than a handful of female teachers among dozens of men.  My only female teacher in high school was Miss Bik (Biro) for French in first year.  Who can decline Être? - merde qu'est un tas inutile!

After 1969 teaching was one of the first areas to benefit from equal pay so it quickly became a bastion for professional women.  So by the time my children were at school there were more women than men particularly in primary school.  Emily had just one male teacher in primary school and in (co-educational) high school each of the children had a predominance of female teachers, including in maths and science. 

I also noticed other differences in my children's' school experience.  Possibly as a consequence of the feminisation of education, there had been a noticeable change in the curriculum, towards more sensitivity and cooperation and less lauding of individuality and 'daring do'.  At Mosman High School art and performance was now much more prominent and the students were much more mutually supportive than I remembered.  But what had happened to our intrepid explorers in Australian history or our ancestors fighting off the Armada and the tyranny of Spain?  And some kids could even elect a subject called Science in Society or choose English without poetry or Shakespeare and still expect to get a Higher School Certificate.

Science was most disturbing. In chemistry and physics some demonstrations, for example pouring glycerine over potassium permanganate or handling mercury, asbestos or sodium metal had been banned.  No longer could kids drop a dart from the ceiling into a revolving target to measure the acceleration due to gravity; use laboratory apparatus to generate X-rays; or use a radioactive isotope to create tracks in a cloud chamber in the classroom.  The little darlings might get hurt, or inspired or learn something memorable.  They certainly weren't going to learn how to handle dangerous things safely.

So even some of my most imaginative predictions made in the late sixties came to pass.  And the process is not over.  The profound social changes initiated by the 'sixties revolution' are still underway.  In my imagined world of the near future many non-professional women will soon be getting home late and dirty after working on a building site, down a mine, driving a garbage truck or coming home from a war zone in a body-bag.  Conversely, at the professional end, some successful women executives, mimicking their male counterparts, will soon be choosing their male partners for their good looks and will dress them up for display at social occasions.

My daughters are the children of professional mothers and have always expected to have career outside of their home. Consequently they and their siblings, and step siblings, have all completed at least one tertiary qualification, mostly in a science and technology related discipline.  Like their mothers and the numerous young women I have managed at work, they want to do this 'around' having their family. They know they can have both children and a career and that their peers, both female and male have similar issues.  As their generation will take over as the new leaders of the world in a decade or three they will no doubt organise society to facilitate this. 

They also know that this will mean entrusting their children to hired help and being more remote from their children than dedicated 'housewives' once were.  But they are better educated, more experienced and more capable than any young housewife once was and they continue to have more to do with their children than did the middleclass Victorian women who hired nursemaids, nanny's, tutors and sent their seldom seen children to boarding schools. 

As women progressively take their place as true equals in senior management, the sciences and government, and girls surpass boys in other workplaces, so the gender balance in teaching is likely to be restored to equal numbers. Boys will then recover male academic role models: men who may again create explosions in the chemistry labs and crashes and high-voltage sparks and radiation in physics and new wonders in electronics, of the kind beloved by boys.  Schools may again provide the kind of science demonstrations that are now left to University, when it's already too late to inspire youthful minds, or to dads like me to show their kids at home.

But parenting and teaching are only part of the equation, the child themselves cannot be overlooked.  An individual child's performance is driven by their personal interest in their world and their consequent commitment to a life path.  The variability in individual commitment and ability is far greater than sociological trends affecting scholastic achievement, no matter how statistically significant the 'trend' may be.

So to answer the question posed in today's radio discussion: I believe the greater academic success of girls is not some strange 'role model reversal' caused by working mums, as proposed by contributors to the program. 

A correlation does not necessarily denote causality. There needs to be a plausible causal link.  I am not persuaded that the link between mothers working and boys doing less well at school than girls is plausible.  I'm inclined to think that this is nothing more than another appeal to parental/maternal guilt. 

To discover the real reason I think we need look no further than the schools themselves.

The late twentieth century gender imbalance among teachers also correlates with girls doing better. And the causal link is more obvious and plausible, particularly as any imbalance gets amplified by the notorious peer pressure among school aged children.  

Let's see what happens when this balance is restored.


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