The glass ceiling hasn’t been smashed but it is fracturing

Illustration by Suzy Varty

Girls are outperforming boy at every stage of the educational system.  They do better than boys in national curriculum SAT tests. Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of nine percentage points – was no different than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the down-grading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams. Two thirds of girls bagged the top GCSE grades 4 to 9. A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college. This year more women than men have been accepted for university. Six out of ten graduates today are women. 30 years ago seven out of ten graduates were men. And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

Why do women do better than men? One key factor has been the impact of feminist ideas. The advent of second wave feminism led to success in improving legal rights of women such as the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts of 1975. This boosted the expectations and self-esteem of women while challenging the traditional stereotypes of women’s roles as housewives, mothers and carers.

For some educationalists, greater emphasis on equal opportunities in the classroom has had an impact in enabling girls to fulfil their potential. Policies such as monitoring learning materials for sex bias to help schools meet the needs and aspirations of girls as well as diversity in the curriculum, has contributed to their success. Most teachers are sensitive about avoiding gender stereotyping in lessons and workshops.

But most social scientists like Gillian Pascal believe that growing ambition, more positive role models and more employment opportunities are key to explaining female educational success. The number of unskilled/semi-skilled ‘male’ manufacturing type jobs has declined in the last decade whereas the rapid growth of the service-based economy has created more job opportunities for women. Young women have become more ambitious and they’re less likely to see having a home or family as their main priority in life.

Most girls growing up today have mothers working outside the home, who provide positive role models. Millennial young women now recognise that the future involves paid work, often combined with caring responsibilities. Prof Becky Francis of the Institute of Education in 2000 went further and noted that girls aged 14 to 16 had become very aspirational, seeking higher professional careers like medicine and law, rather than ‘traditional’ female jobs like admin, hairdressing or beauty therapy.

Eight years later the sociologist Angela McRobbie argued that changes in the labour market meant more women than ever before expected to achieve a degree level qualification as a prerequisite for a rewarding career – an aspiration which has replaced marriage and motherhood. For McRobbie, girls priorities are now ”job, career and being able to support themselves”. Young women have become incentivised to gain level 3-7 qualifications.

There’s evidence also to suggest that girls work harder in school or college, are better motivated and get more peer group support.

Yet the notion that the future is becoming female has been over-stated. The problem lies primarily with the post-16 curriculum with males and females choosing different academic subjects and vocational pathways. Women are still likely to follow arts, humanities and social science subjects at GCE A-level and Health and Social Care applied generals. Men are more likely to take scientific, computing and technological subjects both at A-level and Btec National even though women are doing well in both.


As the psychologist Jussin (2017) notes girls’ low-take up of STEM-based and IT subjects has less to do with ability or discrimination than the fact that girls who excel at maths/science are as likely to be good at humanities based subjects. Young women she concludes are ”better all – rounders, but too few of those who are good at science choose it as their specialism post-16.”

Making sense of this remains a key debate amongst educationalists and policy makers. For some it boils down to parental upbringing or ”gender role socialisation”. From childhood boys and girls are encouraged to play with different toys and to take part in different play activities. In some households they see their parents playing different roles around the home and outside. This part of the socialisation process may encourage boys to foster more interest in technological and scientific pathways in early adulthood.

Christine Skelton and her colleagues believe that young men and women may be drawn to particular subject areas due to their own ideas of what is suitable for their ‘gender identity’. English and the arts are seen as feminine subjects. Girls therefore find this subject choice re-affirms their understanding of femininity, while boys find the opposite in that it challenges their conception of masculinity.

More women than ever before are entering traditionally male-dominated careers like accountancy, dentistry, medicine and law. A significant minority have made it to the top especially in the further education sector. And female graduates under 40 are earning either the same or slightly more than their male peers.

Yet to many more are failing to break through the glass ceiling when it comes to the very top prestigious jobs in business, finance, politics and the national media. Less than a quarter of UK MPs are women, one third of councillors are women and the nations’ boardrooms are still male dominated. It’s still the blokes who pull the strings and run the show. For the writer Owen Jones Britain’s ‘Establishment’ remains monopolised by white upper-middle class men with private school and Oxbridge backgrounds.

It’s premature for some writers to infer that the future is becoming female.  For some it’s still a man’s world in 2021. The glass ceiling hasn’t broken, but rather has become fractured. If more women are to break to the top jobs, central government and the business community need to re-affirm family-friendly, work-life balance policies, stamp out discrimination based on pregnancy, and challenge institutionalised sexism which still permeates a lot of the banking and corporate finance sector.

Barnaby Lenon in his book ‘Other People’s Children’ argues there needs to be more effort to increase the proportion of able young women taking level 3 maths, computing or sciences. If we want to improve the supply of engineers schools and colleges need to devise imaginative ways of motivating female students to consider this career.

Outside the educational sector, bosses need to wise up to the emerging evidence that many men in their thirties are becoming more child-centred and don’t want to work long hours. Unproductive ‘presenteeism’ is still a core feature of work-places across the UK economy, but not in the rest of the EU. People need to work smarter, not harder. Overall, a huge cultural shift is required if we’re to achieve gender equality in post-16 education, work and in the domestic sphere.

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