"There may be both costs and benefits to being female as well as to being male," the authors of a study wrote in the June issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology. "Specifically, although girls may have the edge over boys in terms of their performance in school, this edge is lost when it comes to the experience of internal distress."
The long-term cost may be that as girls get older, despite their stellar academic performance, their internal distress stops them from pursuing higher education and careers in fields such as engineering and science, said principal investigator Eva Pomerantz, a professor of psychology at Illinois. "If a girl gets to college and wonders, 'Should I go for advanced physics?' the question 'Can I handle it?' becomes a major hurdle," she said.
The study was designed to simultaneously consider gender differences in academic performance and internal distress suffered by children. Data were collected three times from 932 fourth through sixth graders in a predominantly white school district over the course of a year (spring to spring). Researchers gathered grades in language arts, math, science and social studies. They also collected self-reports from children on how they felt about themselves and their efforts.
Girls outperformed boys in all four subjects, although the gap narrowed slightly as children entered seventh grade. Regardless of their grades, girls reported more internal distress than did the boys. However, lower-achieving girls suffered the most. That feelings of internal distress already were occurring in preadolescence came as a mild surprise, Pomerantz said.
Perhaps most notably, she said, the size of the difference between girls and boys in their grades was only half the size of the difference between the two in their internal distress, even at this young age.
"In this study, even the highest achieving girls were more anxious and depressed, and perceived their abilities more negatively, than did the high achieving boys," Pomerantz said. "However, low-achieving girls did the worst. When they fail to get good grades, we think that they feel like they have really disappointed their parents, and they question their own abilities, leading to anxiety and depression."
The big question, she said, is why girls suffer more internal distress than do boys while also outperforming boys. Pomerantz speculated that girls are more concerned than boys are when it comes to pleasing adults, such as parents and teachers. This concern leads them to be more invested in doing well. She suggests that other factors also are important.
"What are parents, teachers, the media and biology doing that make girls perform better but also experience more distress? We know, for example, that parents are more likely to exert more control over their daughters, such as checking up on their homework responsibilities more than they would with their sons," she said.
"We think that girls are socialized to put more emphasis on pleasing people," she said. "This has positive consequences in that girls become more engaged in their school work, more motivated, listen better to the teacher, and all of this results in good grades. But, at the same time, they are constantly worrying about what happens if they do poorly."
Educators, parents, psychologists and policymakers need to be asking what they can do to help boys do better in school and to help girls feel less distress, she said.
Authors of the study were Pomerantz; Jill L. Saxon, a former psychology doctoral student at Illinois; and Ellen Rydell Altermatt, also a former doctoral student and now a professor at Michigan State University. The National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health supported the study.