Who would want to be a boy in the education race in Hong Kong? According to a report on the 2017 Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examination published last month, female candidates outperformed males by a whopping 16 percentage points in meeting the minimum entry requirements for university.
Just under half of all female day school candidates (49.2 per cent) gained the magic “3322” results in Chinese and English language, maths and liberal studies, compared with one-third (33.1 per cent) of boys. That gap has persisted since the DSE was launched in 2012. In last summer’s exams, the gender difference was, as usual, most significant in Chinese language – 66.5 per cent of girls achieved the minimum level 3, compared with 45.6 per cent of boys. This, and the need for the same minimum in English, is the major barrier for boys heading to university.
University Grants Committee statistics show that the percentage difference in women and men in first-year undergraduate programmes has widened from 3.4 per cent in 2011/12 under the old academic structure to 8.2 per cent in 2016/17. Women comprised 54.7 per cent of undergraduates at Chinese University – 1,575 more women than men on campus – and 53 per cent at University of Hong Kong. In the prized fields of medicine, dentistry and health, women claimed 60 per cent of all places.
The DSE report reveals some surprising facts. There was no barrier to progression for girls in some subjects boys are traditionally expected to excel in. In maths, slightly more girls than boys met the minimum level 2 for university. Even in physics, girls fared better than boys at level 3 and above, while in the more practical design and applied technology, 37.4 per cent of girls scored at least level 3 while boys lagged at just 15.6 per cent. It is true that among the students achieving the highest grades, the gap reverses slightly in favour of the smartest boys, in maths and the sciences.
The causes of this divide are complex and not unique to Hong Kong. Girls mature faster than boys, in particular in communication skills that translate to better language results. This is believed to lead them to outperforming boys in the secondary schools places allocation exercise, and to be concentrated in so-called band one schools. The Education Bureau does not compile data by gender on the banding results after a 2001 court ruling that rightly stopped them discriminating against stronger-performing girls in the allocation. But it is important to know these differences, so that they can be tackled in the classroom. Systemic issues are also at play in the unequal educational outcomes. One principal described reforms as having “feminised the curriculum”, because of its emphasis on languages, for both secondary school and university admissions.
If this is the case, when admissions requirements are reviewed, can there be a fairer system, where languages remain important but are not a barrier? For example, for university study, the language grades required could reflect the needs of the course rather than the hard-to-obtain level 3 in the two languages. Schools, meanwhile, should be ready to address the different learning needs of boys and girls.
I am proud that girls do so well in the Hong Kong education system – although statistics show they still need more encouragement to pursue pure sciences and engineering in their school and university subject choices. But without taking anything away from girls’ achievement and the opportunities that should follow, this gender gap should no longer be ignored. Boys who are failed by the system are at risk of going on to become less-educated and more disgruntled adults, a poor outcome for everyone.
Dr Katherine Forestier is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning at the Education University of Hong Kong and a former Post education editor