Despite Discrimination, Women Outperform Men in School

Molly Pennington, PhD

Writer and Mentor

Girls and women have been steadily outpacing their male peers at all educational levels for 35 years, yet many of these success stories emerge from settings where discrimination occurs with alarming frequency. Learn what experts report about the phenomena and what can be done to address it.

According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, which began tracking such outcomes 75 years ago, 2014 marked the first time that there was a greater likelihood that a woman would hold a bachelor’s degree than a man.

Persistent Inequality

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women comprised 57 percent of college students and 57 percent of college-degree holders in 2014. Nonetheless, while more women than men now earn bachelor’s degrees, there is strong evidence that they do so on campuses where inequality still persists. In a recent study published throughHarvard University’s Voices of Diversity project, U.S. college students at several predominantly white, 4-year institutions were asked about their experiences at college. (Only one of these institutions, Missouri State University, agreed to be publicly identified and to implement recommendations to address these problems immediately). The men and women interviewed described interactions small and large, subtle and overt, in which female and male minority students were subject to discriminatory treatment. Many of these experiences involved microaggressions — that is, intentional or unintentional slights that contribute to a hostile environment and which are recognized by experts as being harmful to learning.

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Workforce Discrimination

Such experiences often persist — especially for women — once students graduate and find themselves on the job market, with detrimental consequences for employer and employee alike. A recent report by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that aims to improve career opportunities for women across many employment sectors, found that men at U.S. universities hold a considerably higher percentage of tenured positions than women. Female instructors were also more likely to be employed in lower-ranking orpart-time faculty positions at these institutions. A related analysis at the University of Southern California revealed that 92 percent of white males at this institution were awarded tenure between 1998 and 2012, while just 55 percent of women and minority candidates were.

Female hires experience discrimination in other industries as well, particularly in technology fields. Indeed, 73 percent of tech employees surveyed by The Guardian in 2014 reported that they believe the industry is sexist. According to research presented at the 2014 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, nearly 40 percent of women who earned engineering degrees in the past 60 years had either left the field or opted not to pursue careers as engineers, earning the discipline the dubious honor of being the field with the highest turnover of female workers compared to other skilled professions like law, medicine, and higher education. One explanation was the industry’s “hostility toward women.”

STEM fields have been identified as a major domain of discriminatory treatment towards women, both in college and the workplace. Only about 25 percent of STEM degrees are awarded to women, although there are colleges working to address this disparity. Such institutions are enacting deliberate efforts to increase hiring of female faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math departments as well as providing more mentorships to support women in these disciplines.

Increased Achievement

In light of how common it is for women to encounter gender discrimination in educational and employment settings, what accounts for their higher achievement in school?

Claudia Buchmann, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, explains that as career opportunities expanded for women in recent decades, girls have become increasingly motivated to strive in school in order to have similar choices when they reach the workforce. As Buchmann notes, they seem to understand that success is not a given and that hard work is necessary to reach their goals.

According to a 2014 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that compared reading, math, and science achievement among 15-year-old boys and girls in developed countries, researchers found that girls read and study more than boys, a difference that is especially significant since reading is foundational to all other areas of learning. Indeed, experts believe that such practices enable girls to develop the habits and skill sets that result in both academic and career success.

That said, gender discrimination takes a toll — personally, educationally, and professionally — as a 2015 report by a U.N. working group noted. In spite of the strides women have made in recent decades, their achievements still lag many other countries around the world.

What can schools, colleges, and workplaces do to support girls and women more effectively?


Teachers and faculty need to include scholarship, literature, and histories that represent diverse experiences and perspectives. In the absence of prominent female or minority members of specific disciplines, though, instruction should address the reasons for their underrepresentation. Moreover, since gender discrimination intersects with race, class, age, and sexual identity or orientation, those who work in all areas of education need to engage in dialogue and foster change to remedy the harm that results from exclusion or discriminatory treatment.

A Texas A&M University study by economists Jaegeum Lim and Jonathan Meerexamined the standardized test scores of over 14,000 middle school students in South Korea, and discovered that girls perform significantly better, especially in math, when they are taught by women. The researchers speculated that these outcomes were due to the additional level of comfort female students feel when instruction is provided by a woman, and suggested that female educators foster a sense of equality and freer expression among these students in their classrooms.

In 2014, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) announced an initiative known as TIDES, or “Teaching to Increase Diversity and Equity in STEM.” The program provides 20 higher education institutions with grants to fund faculty development and curricula aimed at effectively teaching STEM disciplines to diverse student bodies. As AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider noted in the association’s announcement of the effort, “It is critically important for higher education to find ways to increase success in STEM fields for both women and all students from underserved communities.”

While American girls and women have made enormous progress educationally and professionally in the past half century, their achievement still occurs in environments where microaggressions or downright discriminatory treatment are more the norm than the exception. School and college leaders, teachers, and faculty can address these issues forcefully to create educational and employment opportunities in which women can contribute with excellence. After all, everyone stands to gain from this outcome.

You can read the latest updates and opinions on education-related news and ask a question to find out how colleges you’re considering address gender discrimination.

Questions or feedback? Write to us at, or leave a comment below.

Photo of Molly Pennington, PhD

Molly Pennington, PhD

I have a doctorate in Critical and Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh where my research focused on representations of race and gender in popular media. I care deeply about social justice and education reform. As a professor, and now mentor and tutor, I love to help students thrive. I work with them to develop critical thinking, a delight for reading and a passion for writing. You can find out more about me at or on Twitter:


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