This book introduces a life course perspective to the study of gender differences in aspirations and attainment, addressing the interplay of individual and structural factors in shaping the lives of men and women and how this interplay develops over time and in context. It examines and describes how aspirations, self-concepts, and attainments form and develop during childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and later in adult life, and brings together evidence from across disciplines to gain a better understanding of the multiple influences on individual lives.
Gender differences in educational attainment and future outlook have been a topic of public debate since the late 1980s. Initially the focus was on the underrepresentation of females in the sciences. More recently focus has shifted to a concern about the academic underachievement of males – following evidence suggesting that boys were failing to improve their educational performance at the same rate as girls, and that girls were overtaking boys in their academic motivation and the level of qualifications obtained (Arnot, 2002; DiPrete & Buchmann, 2013). Beginning in elementary school, girls outperform boys and this gap continues throughout secondary school and higher education. The academic success and achievements of girls have been hailed as a story of the extraordinary success of post-war egalitarian movements. However, the shift in the gender balance, with girls catching up with or overtaking boys in their academic motivation and academic attainments, has also brought about something of a moral panic, leading to calls for support for underachieving boys to retrieve their educational advantage (Epstein, Elwood, Hey, & Maw, 1998; Younger & Warrington, 2006). The threat of boys’ disengagement from the educational system is of particular concern in the current era of growing knowledge economies requiring a highly skilled labor force. However, it has also been argued that recent gains of women in the educational system reflect a “stalled gender revolution” (Carlson, 2011; England, 2010), affecting some groups and some areas of life more than others.