The Preschool & Elementary Years

From the time they start school, children encounter implicit gender bias about their abilities.

By preschool, most children start identifying gender roles. Teachers and parents consciously or unconsciously convey social cues that influence choices of what children play — which in turn contributes to the development of further skills in those areas. For instance, girls are more likely to be encouraged to engage in dramatic play and art, while boys are steered toward task-oriented play and big motor functions like building.

Many classrooms even have “boy/girl”-based processes, such as dividing teams by gender and reinforcing distinctions by referring to “boys and girls” instead of gender-neutral terms like “students” or “children.” Research has found that students in such classrooms end up with higher levels of gender stereotyping.

  • In their early education, girls are often socialized in ways that support “good” behavior — and research shows that girls’ brains generally mature faster, which affects behaviors such as self-regulation, sitting still, following directions and paying attention for prolonged periods.
  • Boys are often expected to “be behind” and less “school ready.” One study found boys from higher-income families are about 3% less prepared to enter school than their sisters, while boys from lower-income families more than 8% less prepared.
  • Preschool-age boys have also been found to be more impacted by adverse experiences — and that low-quality early education can have a significant negative impact on low-income boys. And boy preschoolers are three times as likely to be suspended than girls.
Behavior and Expectation Biases

Girls are generally expected to be more “school appropriate,” “well behaved,” compliant, care-taking and polite. As a result, girls are often held to higher performance standards, even starting in early education.

  • Girls are more often judged and rewarded for hard work and effort versus outcomes — which can discourage confidence and encourage perfectionism.
  • By age 6, girls are more likely to label boys as “really, really smart” and steer away from games or activities they view as intended for the “really, really smart.” This belief is not evident at age 5.
  • Boys are often considered more “innately” smart and to be confident, which can actually discourage them from putting forth effort and result in boys being judged for working hard.
  • Boys are more often pressured to be tough, physical and athletic. They receive messages that “boys will be boys” by pushing behavior boundaries and roughhousing. Messages may reinforce the notion that it is not “masculine” for boys to try hard or do well in school.
  • Boys are expected to “catch up” as they mature, although it is often only higher-income students who have enough support to do so. For a disproportionate number of boys of color and boys from lower-income areas, early gaps continue and exacerbate over time. Boys are more likely to underachieve when they attend schools, especially if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Gender and the Reading Gap

By third grade, girls outperform boys by a half of a grade level; by grade 8, that rises to a full grade level. The gap, however, is smaller for boys from higher-income families. Studies suggest that the reading gender gap is not innate, but related to maturity, behavior, socialization and higher academic expectations in younger grades than in the past.

A high level of reading skills in third grade signals strong academic performance and attainment in the years ahead. This is reinforced by a predominant approach in most U.S. schools of “learning to read” before “reading to learn.” Some researchers raise concerns that valuing functional reading skills above knowledge and context disadvantages students from lower-income families and students of color and contributes to achievement gaps. Strong reading and language arts are important for developing many “employability” skills for higher-tracked future jobs, including communications, collaboration, problem-solving, analysis and creativity.

  • Overall, reading scores in the United States are low. One in three U.S. students is reading below grade level when they’re tested in fourth grade. More than 60% of fourth, eighth- and twelfth-grade students do not achieve proficient levels in reading.