Girls do better than boys in almost all subjects at school. A lot of people are concerned that the differences in girls' and boys' grades have become so pronounced. A new study shows that boys don't actually have as much to gain from getting good grades as girls do.

Boys don’t need to get as good grades as girls

Boys’ grades, on average, are lower than girls’. But researchers found some good reasons they don't need to be as concerned about good grades as the girls.

Boys have fewer choices in the job market than girls when they don’t place as much emphasis on getting good grades.

“But lower grades don’t necessarily make them losers in the labour market,” Liza Reisel said at a recent event held at Norway’s Institute of Social Research. Her work includes research on gender segregation in educational choices.

A new large study that is currently underway has researchers from several research environments investigating gender differences in school performance.

Among other things, they are looking at whether gender differences in school performance can be explained by how grades impact the labour market.

Girls have to get better grades

The researchers have not yet published anything from this part of the project, but they can share one of their preliminary findings.

Girls simply have to get better grades than boys, because it matters more for them.

“Boys have less to gain by getting good grades,” says Sara Seehuus, also a researcher at the Institute for Social Research.

“This applies when we look at income as well as the probability of being excluded from work and education opportunities,” she says.

Sara Seehuus and colleagues are interested in studying girls' and boys' motivation to get good grades.

Boys and girls choose very differently

Norway used to have one of the most gender segregated labour markets in the world.

Now this has changed somewhat, as more women have entered male-dominated occupations.

However, Norway still has a fairly gender segregated labour market.

The most common type of education chosen by women are undergraduate university and college programmes, which give them a bachelor's degree. But gaining acceptance into these courses requires academic qualifications and often quite high grades.

The most common education programmes chosen by boys in Norway are vocational programmes in upper secondary school. The grade requirements are not particularly high there.

Men don’t lose out in the labour market

Today, more women than men are taking higher education. The proportion of women in the last decade has been around 60 per cent.

It's easy to believe that this makes men losers in the labour market. But that is not the case, says Seehuus.

“Our analyses show that male-dominated education programmes in Norway generally lead to good wage conditions. These are also solid programmes that train them for high-demand occupations in the labour market.”

These occupations are primarily within construction and electrical engineering.

In terms of wages, these professions are equal to or higher than the female-dominated occupations that require higher education.

Salary and status mean a lot

“We know that norms and expectations play a certain role in which education we choose. So does identity,” says Seehuus.

The researchers also know that incentives can influence young people's behaviour and what they choose to pursue.

“We’ve observed a development over time, where more women have entered professions that historically have been male-dominated. There hasn’t been any similar development in the other direction. Men haven’t been entering female-dominated occupations to a greater degree,” Seehuus says.

The researcher believes this is partly due to the fact that salary and status are strong and important incentives.

Liza Reisel thinks salary may not be enough to lure more men to apply for traditional women's occupations.

It has been more attractive for women to choose male-dominated professions than the other way round.

“So it’s natural to think that raising wages in the female-dominated occupations could be an important initiative to bring more men into them,” says the researcher.

Could technology lure men?

Reisel agrees that looking at wages and incentives is certainly a place to start to get boys into female-dominated occupations.

There is a crying need for more people in some of the traditional women's professions, especially nursing and caregiving.

“If we only recruit from half the population, we may not succeed in getting enough people to take on these important social tasks,” says Reisel.

A barrier to cross

But, she points out, perhaps salary is not enough.

When an occupation is strongly dominated by one gender, it can be a big barrier for people of another gender to enter it.

“We have freedom of choice. But when the pattern is as ingrained as it is, perhaps freedom of choice isn’t real, because it’s so difficult to cross these barriers,” Reisel says.

Today, technology within the health professions is growing in leaps and bounds.

“Could this aspect,” Reisel wonders, “perhaps be emphasized to entice more men – who might not be as interested in the care aspect – into these professions?”

About the study

  • The project Determined to succeed? Maturation, Motivation and Gender Gaps in Educational Achievement aims to increase our knowledge about why girls seem to do better in the educational system and why boys "lag behind".
  • In the part of the study that deals with the motivation aspect, the researchers used Statistics Norway register data. The data they have on grades only goes back to 2003.
  • It is thus only now possible for the researchers to look at the connection between pupils’ secondary school grades and how they are faring in the labour market now.
  • “The oldest people we can look at are around 30 years old today, so it’s important to be aware that our analyses are providing information from quite early in their careers,” says Seehuus.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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