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Why Arab girls are crushing boys in science

Last month, I gave a series of lectures in astrophysics at an Algerian university within a master’s degree program: All seven students were girls. Last year, I gave two lectures in astronomy to a class at the University of Jordan: Some 80 percent of the students were female.
It is not just university enrolment that sees females dominating in the Arab world; more importantly, the performance of students starting from primary level shows girls utterly crushing boys in science. A year ago, when the results of the PISA and TIMSS international tests in reading, mathematics and science came out, they showed Arab girls from all the participating countries (including all Gulf states) hugely outperforming boys from grades four to 10. The collective results (boys and girls together) placed all Arab states below average, sometimes far below the mean international results, but, relatively speaking, girls were much better.
Data from universities and workplaces are not widely available, but all Arab countries that have provided statistics to UNESCO show female students outnumbering and out-graduating male students in almost all fields, sometimes by a large factor (engineering is often an exception, but that is a universal state of affairs). In science fields, Arab female students make up larger fractions than US ones. And among researchers, Arab women make up 40 percent of staff, compared to 29 percent for the whole world and 32 percent in North America and Western Europe. Westerners tend to be surprised by these numbers because they expect “conservative Arab societies” to stifle women’s aspirations and to direct them to more “feminine careers”. That is clearly untrue.
Another frequently given explanation turns out to be of limited value, if not downright simplistic and incorrect: That girls are just more studious, disciplined and hardworking, whereas boys spend their time playing football and PlayStation games and are undisciplined in class. First, girls also waste time at home, not on video games but on social media, chats and videos. And secondly, how does one explain the fact that some Arab states show no difference between boys and girls in school performance (Lebanon and Tunisia, most notably)?

Our future will not be bright without both girls and boys mastering science and technology, so our educational systems need to work hard to address all aspects of these subjects in order to ensure collective success.

Nidhal Guessoum

In the last few years, this striking educational and social phenomenon has attracted the attention of researchers from around the world. Field research, in-depth interviews and investigations have uncovered other causes of the gender skew in science, mathematics and other fields.
The first thing that was noted is that the gender differential in school performance is much smaller in private schools compared to public schools. Secondly, countries where public schools are segregated by sex show a dramatic difference in performance between boys and girls. And thirdly, at the university level, female students end up outnumbering young men when high school graduates are funneled into specific fields according to their scores, not according to their personal inclinations. Indeed, interviews showed that many girls who were placed into chemistry or mathematics were actually dreaming of studying journalism, the arts or something closer to their hearts.
Why do public schools seem to be responsible for the above phenomenon? Because the overall atmosphere in boys’ schools is often detrimental to the entire learning process. Bullying and even violence is often widespread, relations between teachers (all male) and pupils is often bad (beatings are not uncommon), and a general macho, hyper-masculine psycho-sociology develops, making students shun learning either by choice or by necessity. Girls’ schools, meanwhile, are more conducive to learning and to personal development. Co-ed (mixed gender) schools soften the atmospheres and push boys to perform better, to save face or to impress the girls. And, finally, private schools tend to have smaller classes, which we know is the most important factor in determining the performance of pupils all-round.
What conclusions and recommendations can one draw from these recent investigations into the performance and other aspects of the education of Arab boys and girls?
First, a general improvement of the learning environment is needed in many countries, particularly in public schools. Leaving aside gender differences, we must stress the fact that all Arab countries are performing well below average on international tests. But, more particularly, boys’ schools need serious attention, especially the bad atmospheres that often prevail there and the negative effect these have on pupils’ learning. And last but not least, a concerted effort needs to be made to incentivize the students, both girls and boys, by showing them successful role models (men and women from their own countries) and great career paths.
It has been estimated that, by the year 2030, there will be 8.4 million jobs worldwide in solar and wind energy alone. And recent figures showed that women who graduate with science and engineering degrees tend to make 33 percent more money than women who work in other fields.
Our future will not be bright without both girls and boys mastering science and technology. Our educational systems need to work hard to address all aspects of these subjects in order to ensure collective success.

• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.
Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum​