Why does it exist? Why is it ignored?

(Note: this blog post was updated as at 22/06/2018 and is a heavily-edited version of another post originally published in September 2017)

As a group, young women do far better in the Leaving Certificate than their male counterparts. This is clear when we look at the average points scored by each quintile of boys and girls in the core subjects of Maths, Irish and English (see Figure 1, Figure 2 and Figure 3 at the end of this blog post). Boys hold their own or do slightly better in Maths but, in a pattern that is repeated across most other non-core subjects, trail badly in both Irish and English.

It’s a similar story when we look at the aggregated grade data provided by the CSO (most recently for 2015 – see Figure 4). In each of the CSO’s high-performance categories, girls outnumber boys by a ratio of 3-to-2. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that among undergraduates in our top universities young women also outnumber young men by a ratio of 3-to-2.

Two questions follow from this; firstly, why is it that young men underperform so badly compared to young women and, secondly, how is it that this massive disparity between the genders – one with a crushing impact on the opportunities for young men – can get so little attention from an Irish media that is otherwise obsessed with gender issues?

In the only recent articles that I could find on this topic, Sinead Ryan[1] and Orna Mulcahy[2] dispense with the first question very quickly; young women do better in their exams because they work harder. Girls are diligent. Boys are feckless and lazy. Simple.

Both articles then move on to discussions of the various types of systemic bias faced by young women. Ryan claims that the points system is biased towards boys who hoover up “the lion’s share” of bonus points for maths (this claim is hopelessly misinformed; in 2017, boys received 53% of the bonus points for maths – hardly a “lion’s share”).

Mulcahy presents the under-representation of women on corporate boards as prima facie evidence of discrimination in the workplace. In so doing, she offers the most striking illustration of the difference between how young men and young women are treated by the media; when women outperform it is because they deserve to but when men do better this taken as proof of systemic bias.

Imagine the reaction from Ryan’s fellow journalists had she claimed that men climb higher up the corporate ladder because they are more hard-working than women.  Indeed, we don’t need to imagine and can simply refer to the controversy generated by Kevin Myers’ claims that the gender pay gap exists because men work harder and are more ambitious than women.

Myers was wrong. To explain the gender pay gap as being because men put in longer hours in the office is to ignore that this is largely because women take on a greater portion of the responsibility for minding children and elderly relatives. Women in corporate/political life are confronted by a system that discourages their participation through a lack of work-life balance, a lack of role-models and a lack of mentors. Aggressive cultures and sexual harassment can also make the office a hostile environment for women. These are the factors that characterise the systemic bias against women in the workplace. If men are more engaged in their careers it is, in large part, because it easier for them to be so. It is not because women are workshy.

With all this in mind, should we be so quick to explain away the gender points gap as being because girls work harder than boys? Should we not ask if girls tend to be more engaged with their education simply because it is easier for them to be so? Should we not consider the possibility that the education system discourages and frustrates boys just as the corporate and political systems are known to discourage women?

There are many reasons to suspect that this is, indeed, the case (one of which I discuss in another post). However, by far the most compelling of these is that the gaps between boys’ and girls’ academic performance appear while they are still in primary school and are cemented before they turn 15[3]. Boys are falling behind girls while they are still small children.

In 2017, girls were 38% more likely than boys to sit Junior Certificate Irish at Higher level. They were 58% more likely to get an A, B or C at Higher level. Girls were 27% more likely to take a modern foreign language at Higher level and 52% more likely to get an A, B or C.

Should we place the blame for these disparities on the the boy children themselves or should we –  as parents, educators and policy makers – accept that we have failed to encourage and support boys sufficiently to allow them reach their full potential?

Every single year, tens of thousands of little boys are fed into a system that we know will fail them to a disproportionate degree. How can we excuse this? How can we imagine that this is anything other than a systemic bias? And how can our media continue to wave away any discussion of this bias with pejorative stereotypes about young-men’s work ethic?

The double-standard under which boys suffer is so blatant and is applied with so little embarrassment that I find myself wondering if there is some reason for this – something compelling yet so obvious that no-one in the media feels the need to even touch on it. I am at a loss to think of what that explanation might be.

Perhaps the juxtaposition of outcomes for men and women in the leaving certificate and the workplace is intended to imply that it’s ok if school is harder for boys because they then get an easier ride in their careers. If this is the argument, it is far from persuasive; it should be perfectly clear that the boys who are struggling academically are not, by and large, the same group who go on to attain high-powered positions in business or politics. It is equally clear that no schoolboy today bears any responsibility for gender discrimination in the adult world. How can it be justified that so many boys should be penalised for a bias from which they will not benefit and for which they are not responsible?

I am not oblivious to how a person raising these kind of questions is likely to be perceived; a cursory glance through opinion pieces in Irish newspapers or websites will unearth any number of references to “whinging men’s-rights-activists” and “broflakes”. However, I don’t accept that one needs to be an embittered misogynist to express concerns about how our education system is clearly failing half of our nation’s children – even if those children happen to be boys.

Nor would I accept that to raise these concerns is to engage in “whataboutery” of a kind designed to deflect or distract from other gender issues. Systemic bias against women is real. It is important we understand and address it. However, there are biases against men – boys and young men in particular – that are no less real and no less important. Raising concerns about outcomes for young men is not to dismiss the challenges facing young women – it is not a zero-sum game.

In a week when students are still sitting the Leaving Certificate, mainstream newspapers can find space for discussions of the gender balance at the McGill Summer school[4], RTE can broadcast a two-part documentary about historic injustice towards women (which Aoife Kelly can complain some men still “don’t get”[5]) and Tara Flynn can publish a piece mocking those she perceives as pushing back against women’s rights[6].

The Irish media, it seems, can find plenty of space for some gender issues but none at all for a discussion of young men’s struggles in our schools. Not only do the questions I ask remain unanswered; they are not even acknowledged.

The Irish education system is plainly biased against boys. The fact that journalists consistently ignore this suggests that the Irish media is too.



Figure 1: Average points for Maths for each quintile of males (M) and females (F) in the Leaving Cert. 2017



Figure 2: Average points for Irish for each quinitle of males (M) and females (F) in the Leaving Cert. 2017



Figure 3: Average points for English for each quinitle of males (M) and females (F) in the Leaving Cert. 2017



Figure 4: Grades achieved in the Leaving Certificate, 2015, by males (M) and females (F)


[1]Girls top class but system biased towards boys who do sums better”; Irish Independent, 18/08/2017

[2]Girls can take a bit of Yes swagger into the exam hall today”; Irish Times, 06/06/2018

[3]Learning for Life: The achievements of 15 year olds in Ireland on Mathematics, Reading, Literacy and Science in PISA 2012”; R. Perkins et al, Educational Research Centre, available from education.ie

[4]Why I won’t be giving up the chance to have my voice heard in push for equality”; Dearbhail McDonald, Irish Independent, 21/06/2018

[5]No country for women – how can some men still not get it”; Irish Independent, 20/06/2018

[6]Dear fellow Feminazis: I write this from the bunker”; journal.ie, 17/06/2018




One thought on “The Points Gap

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