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Girls’ performance in maths ‘starting to add up to boys’, says UNESCO

A 13-year-old girl solves a maths sum at a school in Gujarat, India.
© UNICEF/Mithila Jariwala
A 13-year-old girl solves a maths sum at a school in Gujarat, India.

Girls’ performance in maths ‘starting to add up to boys’, says UNESCO

Culture and Education

The UN published promising news in the global fight for gender equality and opportunity on Wednesday, showing that when it comes to mathematics, girls are now performing as strongly as boys in the classroom – although there are plenty of barriers holding them back.

The finding, from the UN agency UNESCO, followed analysis of primary and secondary education in 120 countries.

Although boys perform better than girls in the subject in the early years, this gender gap disappears in secondary school – even in the world’s poorest countries - researchers found.

Girls in the lead

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Some countries even saw girls do better than boys in maths, including Malaysia, where by age 14, girls have a seven per cent lead on boys, Cambodia (three per cent) and the Philippines (1.4 per cent). 

Despite this progress, the UN educational, cultural and scientific agency, warned that gender “biases and stereotypes” will continue to affect girls’ schooling, as boys “are far more likely to be overrepresented” at the top level of maths, in all countries.

The problem extends to science, with data from middle and high-income countries showing that although girls in secondary school score significantly higher in scientific studies, they are still less likely to opt for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM subjects.

Girls’ chapter and verse

While girls perform well in maths and science, they show even greater proficiency in reading, with more of them achieving minimum proficiency in reading than boys.

The largest gap in primary education is in Saudi Arabia, UNESCO said, where 77 per cent of girls but only 51 per cent of boys in grade 4 (age 9-10), achieve minimum proficiency in reading.

In Thailand, girls outperform boys in reading by 18 percentage points, in the Dominican Republic by 11 points and in Morocco by 10 points.

Even in countries where girls and boys have the same level of reading in the early grades - as in Lithuania and Norway – by the age of 15, girls are roughly 15 percentage points ahead of boys. 

Girls are demonstrating how well they can do in school when they have access to education,” said Malala Yousafzai, co-founder of Malala Fund, cited by UNESCO. “But many, and particularly the most disadvantaged, are not getting the chance to learn at all. We shouldn’t be afraid of this potential.

We should feed it and watch it grow. For example, it’s heart-breaking that most girls in Afghanistan do not have the opportunity to show the world their skills,”

"Although more data is needed, recent releases have helped paint an almost global picture of gender gaps in learning outcomes right before the pandemic”, said Manos Antoninis, Director of UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report.

“Girls are doing better than boys in reading and in science and are catching up in mathematics. But they are still far less likely to be top performers in mathematics because of continuing biases and stereotypes. We need gender equality in learning and ensure that every learner fulfils their potential”.