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PISA and gender

Published: Dec 6, 2019 3 min read

Daniel Pledger

Research Assistant

National STEM Learning Centre

The PISA results were published this week and, as they do every three years on their release, have generated much debate and discussion. However, one aspect of the results has not received so much attention: the difference in performance – and career expectations - between boys and girls in the UK.

A boy and a girl working together on a school project

PISA, the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment, to give it the full title, is designed to measure 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

In the case of the UK, the students who sat the PISA in 2018 will be the first students to sit the new format of GCSE. However, there were no significant changes in the average performance in reading and in science by students from the UK, although there was a significant average increase in maths, as summarised in the table below, which shows PISA scores for the UK, with the change from 2015 score in parentheses.





OECD average








UK ranking

14 (+8)



The results also show that while girls in the UK outperform boys in reading ability, the reverse is true for maths. Girls scored on average 20 points higher than boys on reading. However, in maths, boys outscored girls by 12 points on average, which is a bigger gender gap than the 5 point average gap across the OECD.

For science, boys in the UK also outperformed girls, but the gap was much smaller, just two points on average. The UK gender gap was the opposite of the OECD average, which saw girls outperform boys on science by two points.

The highest-performing students in maths and science were also asked about their career expectations, with significant differences between girls and boys in the UK. Around 30% of boys in the UK had expectations to work as an engineer or science professional at the age of 30, compared to just 20% of girls. Similarly, for ICT-related professions 7% of boys expected to work in this area, compared to only 1% of girls. However, for health-related professions the gender gap was reversed, with 25% of girls expecting to work in this area, compared to only 11% of boys.

These discrepancies among high-performing students suggest that the UK has some way to go to tackle gender stereotypes. Fortunately there are great ways to do this, like engaging with STEM Ambassadors - 43% of STEM Ambassadors are female. STEM Learning can also support you with targeted CPD and a wide range of downloadable resources. You may also be interested in NCCE’s project to tackle gender balance in computing.​