The issue: Why are girls outperforming boys?

Sabine Severiens (1966) is an endowed professor of education studies at Erasmus University and the University of Amsterdam. Her work focuses on diversity and educational inequality, from the perspectives of motivation, integration and the learning environment. Her research includes lecturer competencies and stimulating learning environments for diversely composed groups.


The highly qualified working population is becoming increasingly female. Are young men stupid, or is there another reason why they’re having to leave university in droves? Educationalist Sabine Severiens: ‘Education is becoming increasingly mandatory.’

Text: Geert Maarse


In 1980 the Netherlands had 48 thousand female university students and more than one hundred thousand male students. Just over thirty years later, females are outperforming males. Is that a problem?
‘It’s only logical that the number of females entering university has got closer to the number of males. However, currently 55 percent of university students are female. If the developments of recent years continue, there will soon be a preponderance of women in lecture theatres, which, in my opinion, is not an entirely desirable situation.’

 Is that really likely?
‘It isn’t inconceivable. There are countries where the ratio is even more distorted than here; in Scandinavian countries, for example, or in Poland. And in Jamaica 90 percent of the students in higher education are female.’

 Are girls more intelligent?
‘No. The answer won’t be found in the cognitive corner.’

 Why is there such a disparity then?
‘One significant reason is that women deem education more important. Men envisage better opportunities for themselves without the need of a diploma. A university degree has less of an impact on the level of their income. When the jobs market is buoyant, you notice more boys dropping out of university. They simply think: suit yourself, I’m going to start earning money. From that perspective, women have a greater need of diplomas.’

 Not only do girls drop out less, they outperform boys when they’re at university. Has education been feminised?
‘That depends on what that actually means. In primary schools there are far more female teachers than male teachers, about 80 percent. At that stage boys do everything just as well and in some areas they even perform better than girls. In the universities the majority of the lecturers are male, but there boys don’t perform as well. It’s a fact that education relies heavily on characteristics which are, in general, more inherent in females than males.’

 Such as?
‘Girls score better as far as motivation, concentration and time management are concerned.’

Have boys been the dupe of the recent changes to the educational system - i.e. the Second Phase, Binding Study Advice, Nominal is Normal - which requires a large amount of self-reliance?
‘That’s an oversimplification. Before you know it we’ll be creating all sorts of stereotypes. It isn’t that motivation and discipline are characteristics exclusive to women.’

 But they are more motivated and disciplined…
‘Yes. That’s true.’

 Do you understand the need to stereotype when you talk about a certain group – males – who do not perform as well as another group: females?
‘Actually, I think a more relevant question would be whether the performance of male students will continue to deteriorate, or that of females continue to improve. During the decades that girls were not performing so well no one - with the exception of a few feminists – was asking any questions.’

 The first women went to university in 1871. Isn’t this situation simply righting a historic wrong?
‘It could be. But in both the business sector and in the government, it’s blatantly obvious that we are a long way from achieving a healthy balance. Despite having so many female graduates, merely 15 percent of Erasmus University’s lecturers are female. This sort of process is too important just to let it run its course.’ 

When children start school, there are almost equal numbers of boys and girls. At what moment do boys start lagging behind?
'The disparity is visible during their pre-university education (vwo). But it’s at higher education level that the disparity becomes really apparent. People often say that’s to do with the teaching methods. Boys would learn better by undertaking activities, by doing and by analysing, while girls have a greater feel for languages and can read better. However, research has not demonstrated that this is the case. It’s far more important that a student feels at home. My own research has shown that, on average, men are less satisfied, particularly in the traditionally female programmes: psychology, education studies, and language and cultural studies. They feel out of place there.’

 What can be done about this?
‘We should ensure they really feel challenged by amending the content of the programme, or the way it’s taught. At Erasmus University we work with problem-oriented education, which is very mandatory and always the same. It involves a great deal of talking, cooperating and reading, which is a killer if the method doesn’t suit you.’

Which is the case for a huge number of boys …
I recently spoke to an educational advisor who works with problematic boys in secondary school. He was talking about silverbacks, like the gorillas, boys who - at a certain age - have to beat their chests with their fists. You can brand such behaviour tiresome, but in fact it’s just exercise. They’re simply looking for a way to prove themselves. You could, therefore, opt to view it as a positive attempt to, for example, develop leadership skills and give this behaviour a role in the class. Make use of these young men, so that they strengthen the learning process instead of disrupting it. Boys will try anything. The only problem is it sometimes comes across in the wrong way.’

In the eighties there was a campaign to raise the percentage of females following science programmes: ‘A clever young woman is prepared for her future’. Would it be a good idea to start the same sort of campaign for males?
‘Personally I don’t think that would achieve much. We would achieve more by doing something about the homogeneity in the body of lecturers. In primary education they’re all young, white, middle-class females, in higher education they’re primarily white, fifty-plus males. The people responsible for recruitment shouldn’t just appoint lecturers who are the same as they are.’

Is too little attention paid to the things boys are good at?
‘When you plan educational programmes, you should take account of differences. In Rotterdam we have a project ‘Playing for Success’: here problematic boys are offered help with their homework in and around De Kuip and they also get to take part in activities with football players. I tell my students about this during the lectures, in the hope that the few boys I have might, for example, decide to do their internship there. Not that all boys like football – that would be resorting to stereotypes again – but you have to ask yourself: who are my students, what do they want to do and what do they find interesting?’

There are people who advocate separate schools for boys and girls. How do you feel about that?
‘It’s a difficult question. The Iranian mathematician (Maryam Mirzakhani, GM), recently the first woman to receive an extremely prestigious prize, attended an all-girls school and makes frequent reference to the fact. She believes it gave her a huge advantage. I think girls at all-girls schools are probably less distracted by group dynamics and don’t feel the same need to act in girlish ways, and there girls can, for example, say they love maths – traditionally a male domain. But at the same time, I think: eventually we all have to work together.’

A great deal of research has been carried out into ethnic diversity in higher education. Do you think the mechanism is the same in the case of sexual inequality?
‘Partly. However, in the case of ethnic diversity, language is a huge factor. Children from ethnic minorities frequently have to deal with a language deficit. It’s possible that such children are advised to follow a preparatory secondary vocational education (vmbo) while – apart from the language – they could easily follow a pre-university education (vwo). That doesn’t apply to the discussion about genders. But what they do have in common is the important role played by resorting to stereotypes. And, as a lecturer, you have to do something about that. You have to talk to your students about their wishes, their expectations. That will help boys, it will help ethnic minorities, in fact, it will help everyone at the university.’

Your brains – and consequently your ability to take long-term decisions – are only fully developed at the age of twenty-four. And that’s particularly applicable to boys, whose development tends to lag behind that of girls. Aren’t we, therefore, being forced to make choices far too early?
‘In the Netherlands children are divided into their levels at twelve. While in some other countries they aren’t segregated until the age of sixteen. In those countries you see much greater diversity in higher education. Boys have to try things out, seek their boundaries. But the educational system we have, at this university too, has become increasingly mandatory. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to allow definitive choices to be taken at a somewhat later stage.’

The issue is a section in Erasmus Magazine, the opinion and information magazine of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in which an EUR-academic responds to a current-social issue.