Gender stereotypes and school perseverance during adolescence

Since the 1990s, a number of studies have shown and confirmed that students who adhere most closely to gender stereotypes are also those who drop out the most (CSE, 1999; Bouchard & St-Amant, 1996; Bouchard, Saint-Amant & Tondreau, 1997). This is an additional angle for understanding the determinants of school perseverance since not only is the learning experience (how the student is treated and trained) modulated by gender, but the relationship to learning is also determined by gender stereotypes (how the student perceives and acts within the school system). Children, from birth, are treated differently in their social environment (family, school, peers and media) according to the gender assigned to them. Their strengths, difficulties and attitudes are at least partly the result of this differential treatment and their understanding of what it is like to “be a girl” or “be a boy”. These gender stereotypes will ultimately modulate their aspirations and representations of the future, which in turn will influence their professional orientations (Bouchard, St-Amant, 1997; Plante, Théoret & Favreau, 2010; Potvin & Hasni, 2019; Plante, O’keefe & Théorêt, 2013) and equality between men and women.

This section further explores how gendered socialisation interacts with the relationship to school and learning and with how teachers contribute, usually unconsciously, to the reinforcement of this socialisation. By looking at the social realities of boys and girls, it is moreover possible to develop pedagogical approaches that can better meet their respective needs. It should be remembered that while boys are generally (but not always) more likely to drop out of school, girls do account for a significant proportion of young people who drop out (Dupéré, V. & Lavoie, L, 2018). This proportion is also on the rise, since efforts to combat dropping out in recent years seem to be less effective with girls (Ministère de l’Éducation et de l’Enseignement supérieur, 2015, in Dupéré, V. & Lavoie, L, 2018).

In the first section, we will focus on understanding the link between adherence to gender stereotypes and school perseverance, and then explore the differentiated worlds of boys and girls.

Dominant masculinities and feminities at school

When we look at the relationship to learning, the demands inherited from traditional and dominant masculinities and femininities are considered to be linked to factors affecting disengagement from school (Bouchard & St-Amant: 1996, Bouchard, St-Amant & Tondreau: 1997, Théorêt & Hrimech: 1999).

Behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs inherited from traditional patterns
Requirement to demonstrate one's virility to other boys (Jeffrey, 2015)Strong concern for peer acceptance
Transgressions perceived as virile (conflictual relationships with authority, aggressiveness, behavioural disorders, distrust of rules, consumption, etc.) (Dupéré, V. & Lavoie, L, 2018)The relational dimensions with peers and the adult world play a central role in their equilibrium.
Desire for autonomy, which often presents as a difficulty to communicate and ask for helpCalm, listening and discretion are generally perceived as feminine traits, which can mask their problems (Eurydice, 2010).
Model of the male provider (Théorêt & Hrimech, 1999)Relationship model (Théorêt & Hrimech, 1999) Girls place a lot of energy and importance on their relationships with peers and adults, including peer acceptance.
Lower value placed on academic achievement, effort and graduationHigher value placed on academic achievement, effort, and graduation

Young people who drop out also have undifferentiated motivations. Think of the poverty, lack of family support, academic failure and discouragement (Barribeault, 2016) that are equally common justifications for both genders. On the other hand, boys’ and girls’ school drop-out trajectories also show notable differences, which are related to the behaviours, attitudes and beliefs presented in the above table.

Factors cited as motivating boys and girls to drop out of school
The desire or need to work (Raymond 2008)Frailties in relational dimensions (Raby, 2014)
Conflicts with teachers, suspensions and expulsions related to behavioural difficulties (Lessard, 2004)Family adversity (lack of parental support, violence, judicialised behaviours of parents, family responsibilities, etc.) (Raby, 2014)
More often say they don't like school (Lessard, 2004)Psychological distress and mental health problems (Enquête québécoise sur la santé des jeunes au secondaire, 2010-2011)
More problems externalised (RRM, 2018)More problems internalised (RRM, 2018)

We observe here that boys more often justify their dropping out of school as being due to an interest in work, a rejection of the school world and externalised behavioural issues. Conversely, the reasons given by girls are connected to the personal, relational and psychological spheres. These differences are clearly related to the behaviours, attitudes and values inherited from dominant gender models. Not only do boys adhere more to gender stereotypes than girls, but the norms, values and models related to these gender stereotypes create more distance and conflict with the school world. Nevertheless, these differences remind us of the importance of taking into account the academic difficulties of girls, which are more often internalised and therefore harder to see.

Parents’ schooling and social class

In general, the achievement gap between girls and boys is smaller than that between students from different socio-economic backgrounds (CSE, 2005). Academic achievement is strongly correlated with students’ social backgrounds from a socio-economic perspective. This is partly related to the under-education of mothers, which is known to have an impact on their children’s first diploma: students whose mothers have no diploma or little schooling are more at risk of dropping out of school than others (Fédération autonome de l’enseignement [FAE] & Relais-femmes, 2015). The gap between boys’ and girls’ school dropout rates is smaller in privileged environments because socio-economic background has a greater effect on boys’ success than on that of girls (Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport, 2005).  Some authors put forward the explanation that boys from more advantaged backgrounds adhere less to gender stereotypes, which is consistent with the fact that parental education seems to be a protective factor (Bouchard & St-Amant, 1996). Indeed, children whose parents are highly educated are less likely to identify with gender stereotypes. The most vulnerable children have more stereotyped behaviours, which reinforces their vulnerability (RRM, 2016).

The stereotype threat

One of the important phenomena in explaining the role of gender stereotypes in educational success is the stereotype threat. This concept has been widely used to understand the effect of stereotypes on learning among stigmatised individuals (black students, seniors, women, etc.). Several research studies have shown that evoking a stereotype can, unconsciously, have an impact on the performance of the people targeted by the stereotype in question. For example, simply referring to the gender of students before a math exam has an effect on the performance of girls (Kinch, 2017). Thus, there is no need to refer directly to the gender stereotype positing that boys are naturally better at mathematics than girls for there to be an effect. This highlights the unconscious aspect of the role stereotypes play in learning dynamics.

When students are required to answer questionnaires to measure adherence to gender stereotypes, it turns out that young people in our schools today explicitly adhere less to gender stereotypes than before. However, we note that in assessment or learning situations, gender stereotypes connected to different school subjects (mathematics, science, language) still have an impact on student performance (Plante, Théorêt & Favreau, 2010). The literature on this phenomenon identifies effects on self-esteem, on students’ perceptions of their own abilities (Potvin & Hasni, 2019) as well as on the value placed on learning (Plante, Théorêt & Favreau, 2010). In the long term, these stereotypes have a predictive effect on academic success, pathways and orientation that reflect gendered trajectories (Plante, Théorêt & Favreau, 2010, Rouyer, Mieyaa & Le Blanc,  2017). These findings point to the importance of deconstructing the idea that certain disciplines are more accessible to boys or girls.

The school as a place where gender stereotypes are reproduced

We saw in the previous section that gender stereotypes affect students’ relationships to learning. However, it is equally important to understand that the school is also a place where gender stereotypes are reproduced. The content conveyed (curriculum and textbooks) and educational practices (interactions with the school team) have the effect of reinforcing the values, behaviours, ideas and models that are traditionally associated with the worlds of women and men (CSF, 2016).

Despite many improvements in the last decades, the curriculum and textbooks in Quebec still tend to mask the contributions of women. In history, for example, certain notions have been added to highlight feminist struggles. However, there is little or no discussion of “their exclusion or their political action, the legal inequalities they suffer or their socio-economic contributions” (CSF, 2016). In terms of textbook choices, highlighting women’s contribution to history and explaining the causes of their absence is optional when it comes to choosing the textbooks used by Quebec schools (CSF, 2016). These practices may suggest that equality between men and women has been achieved.

At the same time, interactions with members of the school team also contribute to reinforcing gender stereotypes. On the one hand, teachers (like other adults) tend to perceive boys and girls differently, and on the other hand, they tend to have different expectations and act differently depending on the gender of their students. The fact that teachers’ perceptions are tainted by gender stereotypes is fairly well documented (Duru-Bellat, 2010, Solar, 2018). In 2016, the Conseil du statut de la femme (CSF, 2016) published a survey that told us that:

  • 76% of Quebec teachers believe that boys naturally prefer activities that mobilise technical and mathematical skills;
  • 73% are convinced that girls apply themselves more and are more disciplined; and
  • 72% believe that students have distinct learning styles based on their gender.

This difference in perceptions has an unintended but obvious effect on what is expected of students (Solar, 2018). For instance, teachers often have higher expectations in mathematics for boys, while girls are expected to work more carefully (Solar, 2018). Ultimately, these expectations present as teaching practices that are adapted not to the student’s gender, but to gender stereotypes (Duru-Bellat, 2010). Considering that teachers’ expectations and perceptions tend to pull students’ results up or down (Pygmalion effect and Golem effect), gender stereotypes may here have the effect of a “self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the interactions and assessments conducted in a school context”, which in turn feeds into the beliefs that students hold about their own abilities (Levasseur & de Tilly-Dion, 2018).

To sum up, the effect of gender stereotypes on the relationship to learning and the differences in boys’ and girls’ school experiences are related to their academic performance and career orientation. Understanding these differences thoroughly allows us to see the consequences of differentiated socialisation and to begin to reflect on our behaviours towards young people. The following findings are drawn from various studies on the subject and represent observed trends and not absolute facts about boys and girls. Individual adolescents adhere more or less strongly to the multiple stereotypes associated with their gender.

General observations

Interactions with adults and peers
  1. Members of school teams perceive students’ difficulties differently. In blind tests, in the case of files bearing a female name, difficulties are perceived as being related to the student’s general understanding. For files bearing a male name, the same difficulties are perceived as being related to the student’s behaviour.
  2. Physical, athletic or cultural activities are fundamental to several elements related to educational success, including development, well-being, self-esteem and fulfillment of young people. However, the provision of activities often differs according to gender: for example, physical and sport activities are more often offered to boys and arts and socio-cultural activities to girls. One of the consequences of this is that from the age of 12 onwards, girls gradually decrease the practice of sports and leisure activities, while boys remain more active than girls, regardless of their age group.
  3. School textbooks still present a stereotypical view of men and women and mask certain gender inequalities.
  4. Boys are most often questioned when new notions are introduced, while girls are mostly questioned at the end of the session.
  5. When it comes to evaluation, girls receive more comments and congratulations regarding form (good writing, careful presentation, good conduct, work) while the boys receive proportionally more feedback related to content and performance (skill, intelligence, gift, creativity).
  6. Girls’ difficulties are commented on as being related to more cognitive considerations, and feedback insists on a return to basics, with concern being expressed about the student’s general understanding, whereas these same difficulties are perceived, in the case of boys, as being more punctual, mainly related to their behaviour.
  7. Boys are slightly more likely than girls to experience conflictual relationships with their teachers, while girls are more likely to have friendly relationships with the teaching staff (Chouinard, Bergeron, Vezeau & Janosz, 2010).
Relationship to school and learning
  1. For girls, the choice to engage in physical activity or sport is primarily motivated by the feeling of belonging to a group or social network, whereas for boys, it is primarily a desire to perform.
  2. Girls place intrinsic value on academic performance, whereas boys see it as an extrinsic evaluation of their abilities.
  3. On average, girls place more value on graduation than do boys.
  4. Boys have a higher sense of competence in mathematics while girls generally have a higher sense of competence in French/English (Chouinard, Bergeron, Vezeau & Janosz, 2010).
  5. Girls are slightly more likely than boys to report an interest in French/English and mathematics (Chouinard, Bergeron, Vezeau & Janosz, 2010).
  6. Both boys and girls consider language-related domains to be more suitable for girls (Plante et al, 2019).
  7. A number of media-based models associate body image and being sexy with being popular with peers. This desire to be popular is not new, but “it now seems to be more associated with a sexual attitude” (Duquet, 2013).

Observations concerning girls

Interactions with adults and peers
  1. They tend to be evaluated in terms of form (good handwriting, neat presentation, good conduct, work).
  2. Girls’ relational and academic difficulties are often ignored because they are linked to internalised behaviors, which are not very visible if they are not paid attention to. They are more invisible in the classroom and submissive when it comes to authority (Dupéré, V. & Lavoie, L, 2018).
  3. Girls’ academic difficulties are generally underestimated by school staff compared to those of boys.
  4. Girls like to pass on their knowledge to younger children.
  5. Girls value their friends at school and often discuss with them all matters related to the school environment.
  6. Girls are more often asked closed questions and their questions remain unanswered more often.
  7. Girls are highly motivated by the goal of acceptance (by the teacher and the peer group).
  8. In some settings, academic achievement is seen as a popularity factor for girls.
  9. Girls receive praise from their teachers for both behaviour and academic performance: it would appear that they are calm, dynamic, disciplined, although sometimes talkative, in keeping with female stereotypes.
  10. The segregation and stereotypes that girls are targeted by lead them to adopt behaviours of resistance by seeking out coalitions within their gender category (Gagnon, 1999).
  11. Girls are more solicited than boys when it comes to helping students in difficulty or assisting the teacher, which reinforces the stereotype of girls being responsible for the care and well-being of others.
  12. The reasons for punishment most often associated with girls are: tardiness in work, chatting, cell phones and smoking.
  13. Girls are punished less often than boys.
  14. In math and science, girls are more sensitive to the supportive atmosphere exhibited by the teacher.
  15. Girls are more often victims of sexual, verbal or physical violence (Dupéré, V. & Lavoie, L, 2018).
Relationship to school and learning
  1. Girls are on average more concerned about their success and that’s why they maximise the time they spend in class. They are calmer and less impulsive than boys and are more compliant with rules and instructions.
  2. Girls generally have a positive relationship with school: they like school, feel good about it, and take it seriously.
  3. Girls have a concept of learning that relates to self-actualisation: learning enables them to project themselves into the future and to value themselves.
  4. Girls are more involved in their interpersonal relationships.
  5. Between the ages of 15 and 18, rates of depression increase significantly for both boys and girls. Nevertheless, rates of depression in girls are up to twice as high as those observed in boys. Depressive episodes are one of the reasons girls give for dropping out of school (Meunier-Dubé & Marcotte).
  6. They are more likely to report reading for three or more hours per week for pleasure.
  7. Girls experience more anxiety related to schoolwork regardless of their socio-economic background. They experience a lot of stress during exam periods.
  8. The reasons given by girls for dropping out are more discrete.
  9. They are more likely to perceive the juvenile (young people’s social and cultural world) and school worlds as coexisting side by side.
  10. They perceive the benefits of the subjects taught and more often like the subjects in which they have difficulties.
  11. Girls tend to self-evaluate themselves based on their academic results; their self-esteem is measured, among other things, by their exam results.
  12. Girls attribute their poor academic performance more to intrinsic factors.
  13. Girls have a very high level of satisfaction with good results.
  14. Girls are more likely to believe that academic performance is a guarantee of a better future.
  15. The self-esteem of girls with low scores suffers because they believe that they will not be able to get recognition from others for their results.
  16. Girls have higher career aspirations than boys: their career choices require longer schooling, most often at university.
  17. In scientific pathways, girls seem to prefer biology to physics and chemistry (Potvin & Hasni, 2019).
  18. The consequences of dropping out of school are more severe for girls. They are at a greater disadvantage, particularly from an economic point of view. In 2012, 41.2% of women who had not graduated from high school had an employment income of less than $20,000 despite full-time employment (RRM, 2016).

Observations concerning boys

Interactions with adults and peers
  1. Boys receive more attention than girls (encouragement, criticism, listening) and receive increased attention when unruly. They tend to have more teacher-focused interactions and more individualised instruction (Duru-Bellat, 2010).
  2. They are evaluated more in terms of content and performance (ability, intelligence, gift, creativity).
  3. Boys are more likely to tolerate the rough draft aspect of a job, which reduces the need for them to refine the presentation or structure of their work and evaluations.
  4. Teachers often expect boys to have a greater mastery of content, especially in math and science.
  5. Boys receive more attention in mathematics.
  6. Boys who perform well and have a positive relationship at school are at greater risk of social exclusion and bullying because they do not fit into the boys’ group culture.
  7. The aggressiveness component associated with factors that can precipitate their dropping out (conflict with authority and academic failure) makes the riskiness of their situations much more obvious to those around them.
  8. Boys are asked to perform more physical tasks.
  9. They are punished more often than girls.
  10. The most common grounds for punishment for boys are: lack of discipline, insolence, incivility, degradation, and violence.
  11. Transgression of rules is perceived as a manly attitude that may be encouraged in boys who seek to prove their masculinity to their peers.
Relationship to school and learning
  1. Some boys have a real aversion to school combined with a much stronger attraction to leisure activities and paid work.
  2. Paid work is, already at this age, more interesting for boys who, even in informal work, earn on average $3 per hour more than girls (La Presse, 2020). Quite quickly, the latter are able to find jobs that pay more than the minimum wage.
  3. Some boys reject the values associated with school.
  4. Boys have more vague career and post-secondary educational aspirations and experience more indecision in this regard. This is a determinant of persistence, since aspirations can give meaning to the learning process.
  5. Boys perceive slightly more advantages to dropping out of school than girls. (Chouinard, Bergeron, Vezeau and Janosz, 2010)
  6. Boys are more likely to lower the impact of their academic performance on their future.
  7. Boys on average have lower expectations and place less value on different subjects, which would appear to reduce their motivation and investment of time and energy.
  8. Boys value effort less in the school setting.
  9. Adherence to the value of academic achievement is less evident for many boys.
  10. For many boys, reading and language are associated with the feminine world. More girls than boys report reading 3 or more hours per week for pleasure.
  11. Boys have a high level of overall self-efficacy, especially in grades 9 and 10.
  12. Certain social norms encourage boys to be less engaged in school. For example, it is less accepted to show a high interest in school work, which may be perceived as a feminine attitude.
  13. Boys attribute their poor academic performance more to extrinsic factors.
  14. Play culture, which may conflict with the school world, is more prevalent among boys.
  15. For many boys, it is very difficult to reconcile school experiences with their lives outside of school.
  16. It appears that attention to boys’ inappropriate behaviours and the promotion of male stereotypes leads boys to drop out of school more often than girls.


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