Research on educational gender gaps has focused primarily on average gender differences in school motivation, engagement, and achievement. The nuanced findings from the present study illustrate the importance for quantitative researchers to move beyond a binary perspective and to pinpoint which boys and which girls are falling behind in school. Using latent profile analysis, the present study identified seven profiles of adolescents with similar patterns of gender role conformity and documented each profile’s prevalence. Further, these gender role profiles showed differential relations with students’ motivation, engagement, and achievement in English and mathematics. Within-gender variations indicate that two thirds of the boys were doing fine in school, while a sizable proportion of girls could be considered at risk. These results reveal the near invisibility of well-performing boys and underachieving girls in academic discourse.
Subgroups of Adolescent Boys and Girls in School
Three groups of boys (resisters, cool guys, tough guys) and four groups of girls (relational girls, modern girls, tomboys, wild girls) emerged in the study, each showing a unique pattern of gender role conformity. These profiles map well onto existing images of boys and girls documented in prior studies, suggesting that the profiles identified here are likely to be robust.
Among boys, the current study identified a group of cool guys who behaved in a macho manner while placing importance on appearance and romance. Since physical dominance, attractiveness, and heterosexual success are robustly linked to boys’ popularity in adolescence (Rose et al. 2011
), cool guys are likely to be a socially visible, high-status group in school. Adolescents similar to this profile have been widely studied under several different labels, notably the “lads” in the UK (Jackson 2006a
) and the “jocks” in the US (Pascoe 2003
). A profile consistent with the image of tough guys in previous studies was also found. In a study of adult men in the US, a tough guy identity was similarly associated with endorsement of emotional stoicism, extreme self-reliance, and physical aggression (Smiler 2006
). Although both cool guys and tough guys in the current study displayed aggressive and macho behaviors, these two profiles could be distinguished by their differential endorsement of feminine norms. This finding speaks to the importance of examining young people’s adherence to both their own gender’s and the other gender’s norms to fully understand how they “do gender” in school.
Furthermore, the current study identified a group of boys who showed an inclusive form of masculinity and resisted the norms of emotional stoicism, competitiveness, violence, extreme self-reliance, and risk-taking. Although research has predominantly focused on boys and men who conform to conventions of masculinity, the current study showed that resistance to traditional masculinity was prevalent among adolescent boys (69%), and boys upholding traditional male gender norms were in the minority. This pattern is strikingly similar to the findings of a longitudinal qualitative study in the US (Way et al. 2014
). By following a group of ethnically diverse boys from 6th
grades, this study concluded that 71% of the boys resisted conventions of masculinity in early and mid-adolescence. Additionally, “average Joe”, “family man”, and “sensitive new man” were found to be the most frequently endorsed identities in a study of US adult men, and identification with these images was associated with nonadherence or resistance to traditional masculine norms (Smiler 2006
). Taken together, findings across these diverse samples indicate that the prevalence of resistance to traditional masculinity may not be limited to a particular developmental stage or context. Despite the clear academic and psychological benefits associated with resistance to traditional masculinity during adolescence (A. A. Rogers, DeLay, et al. 2017
), there is a lack of research into the factors that may support boys’ resistance to restrictive masculine norms (for an exception, see Way 2011
). Future research should be careful in labeling boys and men who demonstrate nonconformity to gendered norms as subordinate or marginal (Paechter 2012
), and instead examine what facilitates their healthy resistance to traditional masculinity.
Among girls, tomboys’ pattern of gender role conformity supports previous findings and suggests that a tomboy identity is characterized by simultaneously embracing masculinity while rejecting femininity (Paechter 2010
). Wild girls similarly enacted stereotypically masculine behaviors but also invested heavily in an overtly feminine appearance and romantic relationships. Previous studies show that teachers and students in English schools can distinguish between tomboys and wild girls: while tomboys are viewed as one of the boys, wild girls are portrayed as wearing excessive makeup and tight clothing and being attractive to boys (Jackson 2006b
). Since physical appearance and romantic success are closely tied to girls’ popularity during adolescence (Adler et al. 1992
), wild girls are likely to have a high social standing in school. In addition, the current study found a group of relational girls who rejected the majority of gendered norms and showed the opposite pattern of gender role conformity to wild girls. Not only did relational girls shun competitiveness and aggression but they also rejected the thin body ideal that was highly valued among wild girls. This is consistent with the findings of a recent qualitative study (Paechter and Clark 2016
), which similarly found that some British schoolgirls positioned themselves in opposition to the “cool girls” in school.
Finally, nearly half of the girls were classified as modern girls. Similar to wild girls, the modern girl profile was characterized by a juxtaposition of masculinity and femininity but in a less extreme manner. In a recent study, adolescent girls claimed that “we’re supposed to look like girls, but act like boys” (L. O. Rogers et al. 2020
). Echoing this sentiment, modern girls in the current study subscribed to conventional ideals of feminine beauty, while striving for an appearance of strength by keeping problems to themselves and disconnecting from others emotionally. Given the crucial role of interpersonal connection in human thriving (Baumeister and Leary 1995
), this pattern of gender role conformity is likely to engender tensions for modern girls (and wild girls): they might be simultaneously constrained by the restrictive norms about feminine appearance while unable to exercise the feminine strength of building connections with others.
The quantitatively derived profiles map well onto existing images of schoolboys and schoolgirls in the literature. This provides some validity evidence for the seven profiles and enhances the generalisability of masculinity and femininity typologies developed in small-scale research. Additionally, the current study reveals the relative size of each profile in a large sample of English secondary students, and suggests that prior studies may have focused on a small subset of young people who are socially visible while overlooking the voice and experience of those in the majority.
Which Boys and Which Girls Are Falling Behind in School?
The current study demonstrates that adolescents’ patterns of conformity to a range of masculine and feminine norms can work in tandem to shape their academic success. Boys and girls who rigidly adhered to gender norms were less academically successful than those who showed resistance across gender norms. This result is consistent with prior studies showing the academic costs of strict adherence to traditional gender expectations (Ueno and McWilliams 2010
Among boys, cool guys—who strongly endorsed all masculine norms—reported low perseverance and heightened self-handicapping, as well as performed the worst in English and mathematics. Previous studies indicate that rigid enactment of traditional masculinity can undermine boys’ achievement by reducing their likelihood of seeking help in academic contexts (Kessels and Steinmayr 2013
). The current study points to a lack of perseverance and heightened self-handicapping as additional pathways through which traditional masculinity affects boys’ achievement. These maladaptive behaviors among cool guys might be in part explained by their strict adherence to winning and risk-taking. The mere thought of putting forth effort and failing might be sufficient to prompt these boys to adopt the risky strategy of self-handicapping. In this way, they can preserve the illusion that they can win and outperform others if they try. Tough guys, on the other hand, did not endorse the norms of winning and risk-taking and were much less likely than cool guys to self-handicap. Lastly, the largest profile of boys, namely resisters, reported a growth mindset and willingness to persevere with schoolwork and were performing well in English and mathematics. These variations in motivation, engagement, and achievement across the three groups challenge the simplistic framing of the “underachieving boys” debate and paint a more accurate picture of boys’ problems in education.
Although girls on average outperform boys in secondary school (Voyer and Voyer 2014
), findings from the current study highlight the continuing disadvantage of some girls. Wild girls and modern girls—who made up half of the girls in this study—could be considered academically at risk: they reported a fixed mindset, low perseverance, and heightened self-handicapping in English and mathematics. A recent study revealed that girls had an increased tendency to give up and self-handicap after the transition to secondary school (Burns et al. 2019
). Findings from the current study suggest that the growing disengagement among girls might be driven by wild girls and modern girls. In contrast, the female advantage in school might be primarily attributed to relational girls. These girls exhibited the most adaptive patterns of motivation and engagement across both subjects, and considerably outperformed other girls in English. Compared to other groups of girls, relational girls firmly rejected physical aggression and risky behaviors. As a result, they might experience more positive relationships with their teachers and peers, which could protect them against the decline in motivation and engagement in secondary schools (Burns et al. 2019
The four groups of girls, however, did not differ significantly in their mathematics achievement. This is the case even though the four groups varied in their gender role profiles as well as patterns of motivation and engagement. The finding aligns with previous studies showing that adolescent girls’ degree of gender role conformity was unrelated to their mathematics performance (Yavorsky and Buchmann 2019
). This suggests that some other factors, such as gender stereotypes or gender differences in self-efficacy, might suppress girls’ mathematics achievement across the board (Plante et al. 2013
). Future research could investigate multiple factors known to inhibit girls’ mathematics performance and evaluate their relative contributions to the gender gap. This knowledge is useful for fine-tuning interventions designed to ameliorate gender disparities in mathematics.
Existing studies on within-gender variability in achievement often rely on male-only or female-only samples and provide gender-specific explanations as to why some boys or girls perform less well academically. By studying both genders together and assessing their conformity to both masculine and feminine norms, the current study suggests two general mechanisms through which gender role adherence might undermine boys’ and girls’ achievement. First, strict adherence to traditional gender roles can interfere with boys’ and girls’ academic success when the task or domain is experienced as incongruent with their gender roles (Elmore and Oyserman 2012
). Among the seven profiles identified in this study, tough guys and tomboy girls adhered to masculine norms and rejected feminine norms. These two groups also performed well in mathematics but not in English, suggesting that doing well in a female-typed subject might be viewed as incompatible with their gender roles. In contrast, resister boys and relational girls rejected rigid constructions of gender, and this gender role expansion was associated with positive academic adjustment. These two groups were willing to display effort and engagement even in subjects that could be viewed as counter-stereotypical to their gender.
Second, young people who adhere to gendered ideals of behavior and appearance might place a high value on peer status and, therefore, experience greater conflict between maintaining peer status and trying hard in school. Cool guys, modern girls, and wild girls attached importance to gender-normative behaviors, attractive appearance, and romantic relationships—factors that have been linked to increased popularity during adolescence (Mayeux and Kleiser 2019
). Meanwhile, academic effort is perceived as uncool during adolescence, and adolescent boys and girls displaying high effort are rated by their peers as lower in popularity (Heyder and Kessels 2017
). Given this conflict between school effort and peer status, young people with the desire to gain or maintain peer approval tend to purposely withhold effort in school (Yu and McLellan 2019
). Indeed, cool guys, modern girls, and wild girls in the current study reported low perseverance and frequent use of effort withdrawal as a self-handicapping strategy.
Findings from the present study challenge the practice of treating boys and girls as two uniform groups in gender gap research. The findings further suggest that explanations that have been traditionally used for boys’ underachievement, including (a) the incompatibility between gender roles and the image of certain subjects and (b) the conflict between schoolwork and popularity, might apply to both genders.
Implications for Practice
Given the academic costs associated with rigid adherence to traditional gender norms and the benefits associated with resistance, fostering resistance to traditional masculinity and femininity may reduce the gender role conflict experienced by some young people and increase their school engagement and achievement. A recent study found that even when young men rejected traditional masculine norms privately, they felt pressure to conform to these norms because they overestimated their peers’ support for such norms (Van Grootel et al. 2018
). However, as discussed earlier, findings from the current research and several other studies indicate that resistance to masculine ideals may be the rule rather than the exception. Highlighting the prevalence of resistance can debunk some students’ false beliefs and allow them to act more in line with the real norm and their true selves. By presenting individuals with accurate information about their peers and highlighting the discrepancy between the perceived and actual norms, brief social norms interventions have successfully helped young men to feel more comfortable about expressing their feelings (Beatty et al. 2007
) and hold more egalitarian beliefs about gender (Kilmartin et al. 2008
Furthermore, young people’s peer relationships provide key developmental contexts that shape their gender role attitudes (Kågesten et al. 2016
). Although peer groups can create pressure for gender role conformity (Adler et al. 1992
), reliable and trusting friendships can provide young people with a safe space to challenge traditional gender norms. Studies show that boys with close male friendships are more likely to maintain their resistance to emotional stoicism, physical aggression, and extreme self-reliance (Way 2011
). Likewise, girls who are secure and confident in their friendships tend to be less concerned about striving for feminine beauty, romance, or popularity (Gulbrandsen 2003
). Cultivating positive and trusting friendships in adolescence may therefore provide young people with the necessary social capital to resist gender norms.
Limitations and Future Directions
This study has several limitations that could be addressed in future research. Although this study utilized a large sample drawn from four different schools, the generalisability of the profiles as well as the relationship between the profiles and academic outcomes warrant additional investigation. The current study focused on adolescents’ patterns of conformity to nine dominant norms, and future studies could broaden the scope to include other salient gender norms. For example, being obedient and agreeable are often viewed as important for the construction of femininity. The addition of other norms could change the final solution of the profiles as well as the relationship between the profiles and outcome variables. However, it is possible that the level of conformity similarly matters for other gendered norms. Although being obedient and agreeable may be seen as positive in the school context, strict and rigid adherence to these norms can become problematic when they result in submissiveness and self-silencing.
Although the analyses focused on within-gender variations in gender role conformity and academic outcomes, the current study provides some clues as to how social class and race/ethnicity might shape adolescents’ construction of gender. Due to the small number of participants in each ethnic group, they were aggregated into one category and were contrasted with White students in analyses. However, this practice masks the heterogeneity among people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Future studies could extend the current study with larger and more diverse samples and examine whether students of different minority backgrounds are differentially represented in the obtained profiles. In addition, gender role measures used in this study are designed to assess conformity to gendered norms rooted in the dominant (i.e., White) culture in the US and may not adequately capture the conceptions of masculinity and femininity among different ethnic groups. Future studies should continue to investigate the construction of gender from an intersectional lens and include more culturally relevant gender norms.
From a developmental perspective, there may be age-related changes in how people construct their masculinity or femininity. Even when similar profiles emerge in other studies, the size of these profiles is likely to differ across developmental stages. For example, research suggests that many girls cease to be tomboys when they enter adolescence (Carr 2007
). As a result, a longitudinal study that identifies gender role profiles across multiple time points could reveal interesting changes in people’s patterns of gender role conformity. Lastly, although connections have been made between the obtained profiles in this study and existing images of boys and girls in the literature, these links are tentative. Future research would benefit from adopting a mixed-method approach and conducting follow-up interviews with prototypical members of each profile. Data generated from this qualitative phase can provide a richer understanding of how young people accommodate or resist traditional gender expectations.