Entrenched Gender Patterns Follow Israeli Children to School

Girls believe they’re not good enough for technical fields, while boys pursuing arts face social consequences

Israeli high school students take a matriculation exam, August 5, 2019.
Emil Salman

“The homeroom teacher said my daughter hardly raises her hand in class,” relates Yael Boim-Fein. “When I tried to understand the reason for this – after all, she does well in school – she told me she only does so when absolutely sure of the answer.”

For Boim-Fein, an educator whose main interest is gender differences, this answer reflects a wider phenomenon: “Boys find it easier to raise their hand. For them, the worst that could happen is that they’ll make a mistake. Girls are afraid of being wrong. We educate them from an early age to be perfect, and that affects what happens in class.”

She tried posing a challenge to her daughter: Give deliberately wrong answers in class in order to see that the sky doesn’t come tumbling down. “Obviously, she refused,” she says with regret.

Worrying about mistakes is just an example of the deep, subconscious gaps between boys and girls in school. The different ways teachers relate to them, patterns established in infancy and textbooks that set female and male stereotypes all determine achievements and choices made by boys and girls. Everything is focused on the final matriculation exams.

Official numbers provided by the Ministry of Education show that there are huge gender gaps in the choice of subjects for students taking the highest level (5 units) classes over the last decade. Girls study arts, the humanities and social sciences, while boys pick technological subjects and sports. This has not changed over decades. Boys form the majority of students who choose computers, engineering and technology. In physics, the majority of boys is smaller but persistent over the years. Girls make up a small majority in chemistry and biology, and a large one in art classes.

From a path to an expressway

Many studies have given some explanations for these gender differences over the years. They point to textbooks, whose illustrations feature more boys than girls, and a systemic tendency to encourage girls to study humanities and direct boys toward sciences. Teachers tend to treat boys differently in terms of the time they devote to them, their manner of speech and their expectations.

This is most evident in math and science classes. Mohana Fares, a senior adviser to the education minister who has led a program to encourage students to take higher level math and English classes, says he attended a geometry class a few years ago. After the lesson, he asked the teacher how many times she’d picked on boys versus girls. The teacher didn’t remember, but Fares counted that she had boys answer 13 times while girls only answered 3 times.

These different attitudes affect later choices. “Girls in Western societies tend to think that physics and computers are ‘not for them.’ They’re directed to the humanities,” says Boim-Fein, who recently set up a center for gender equality in education. The outside world also has an impact. Girls see fewer women in engineering, and when they are presented with role models, they get Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath. “Most girls won’t win that prize – they should be exposed to women working in those fields,” says Boim-Fein.

“The ground has been broken,” says Oshra Lerer, head of the gender equality unit at the Ministry of Education. “Now the path has to be broadened into an expressway” – this road should become mainstream for girls.

Fares says the program he led was successful, and gender gaps in math almost closed as a result, but there were greater difficulties in some communities. There are now efforts to find girls who excel at math but take lower level classes and encourage them to take the higher level ones. Teachers are being asked to take note of the differences in their approach to boys and girls, and to discourage anyone from dropping out. Lerer says that the gender equity unit holds workshops to show teachers different approaches they can use to adapt to gender differences in learning styles.

In Israel’s Arab and Druze population, the situation is quite the opposite: 58 to 59 percent of students who take the 5-unit math classes are girls, as opposed to 47 percent in the Jewish population. “Arab girls have a much higher motivation,” says an education ministry official. “Boys go out a lot, whereas girls aren’t allowed to, so they invest more in their studies.” The ministry is now devoting energy to encouraging Arab boys to take higher level math classes.

A heavy social price

There have consistently been more girls than boys (1.7 to 2 times as many) taking biology, chemistry, biotechnology and health-related classes. Biology seems easier to girls with a scientific bent who are afraid of failing, and they often prefer it to grappling with physics. Boys don’t care as much when they fail a test, says Boim-Fein.

In PISA tests (the international student assessment used by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), girls gauged that they’d be less successful than they actually were, compared to boys. When asked to identify concepts they knew in a question that included three fake choices, more boys said they recognized the fake items.

The gaps are the largest in computers and electrical and mechanical engineering. They begin in middle and high school and continue into higher education and employment. Although 60 percent of students doing their bachelor degree are female, only 30 percent of them pursue subjects related to the high-tech industry.

This is one of the reasons for gender wage differentials in Israel, says a Ministry of Finance report from 2016. Some schools, such as the Boyer High School in Jerusalem, are making great efforts to change this situation.

Boim-Fein says that boys want to take arts courses but are impeded by their desire to appear masculine. In 2009, 30 girls and 10 boys took the 5-unit matriculation exam in art, but in later years, only girls did.

There is a great preponderance of girls in other humanities courses, with the difference being threefold. “A boy taking such a course may pay a heavy social price,” says an education ministry official. “A girl taking math or physics won’t, even if she’s a minority in class, while a boy studying dance may face serious consequences at home and from his peers.” Like in other OECD countries, the trends in schools continue into higher education.