Research Does Not Support the Adage “Boys Will Be Boys”

Summary: Study reveals there are not that many “girlish girls” or “boyish boys.”

Source: University of Helsinki

A research article published in the European Journal of Personality demonstrates that girls and boys who were girlish and boyish with regard to a specific domain, such as grades, were not, on average, more so in terms of another domain, such as personality.

Among Finnish adolescents completing their basic education, the study investigated gender differences in terms of personality, values, school grades, cognitive ability and educational track.

“As a rule, there were no prototypically boyish boys or girlish girls. For instance, boys who were very boyish in terms of personality were not more likely to be very boyish also in terms of their values, school grades, educational track or cognitive profile,” says Postdoctoral Researcher Ville Ilmarinen from the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki.

“At the level of the individual, some boys will be very boyish in more ways than one, but there are no general population-level trends that would give credence to the ‘boys will be boys’ phrase. Boys can be very boyish in certain areas, such as their grades, but not at all in other areas, such as personality, values or cognitive performance. In addition, there are plenty of boys whose grades are not particularly boyish.”

To determine the girlishness and boyishness of different domains, the gender diagnosticity approach was utilised.

Gender is most clearly seen in grades

The biggest gender difference was observed in school-leaving grades. Based on the grades, it was possible to predict the gender of individuals with an accuracy of 77.5%. Merely guessing would only give a probability of 50%.

In other areas, the predictive power was 60–70%. The descending order of accuracy was: personality, values, optional subjects, cognitive ability and applications for secondary education.

“We also found that boys had more variation in how boyish or girlish their values, cognitive ability and grades were. This means that two randomly selected boys would be more different in terms of how boyish they were in these areas, with two randomly selected girls being more similar in the extent to which they were girlish,” Ilmarinen says.

The findings show that the areas or domains that one is investigating matter when making inferences about femininity and masculinity, since these are largely unique to individual domains.

“At the same time, it was clarifying to see that the biggest gender differences are in grade profiles, not in personality or cognitive ability.”

Based on the results, the average girl and the average boy take rather different paths in comprehensive school, at least on the basis of their grades. However, there were also boyish girls and girlish boys in this domain, as in all other domains.

Extensive data enabled the diverse examination of gender differences

Previously, femininity and masculinity across various areas has not been investigated much. Now, a dataset well suited to such examination was available.

“This study included measures from different domains of life, and had a large and representative sample at important stage of life,” Ilmarinen says.

This shows a pink and blue toy bunnies
To determine the girlishness and boyishness of different domains, the gender diagnosticity approach was utilised. Image is in the public domain

The sample encompassed a little over 4,000 adolescents who had completed their basic education in a large Finnish city. Their personality and values were measured, and they were subjected to a cognitive test battery of nine separate tests.

In addition, data on their grades (school-leaving certificate for basic education), optional subjects in lower secondary school and applications for upper secondary education were obtained.

“Our results can contribute to the discussion on the genderedness of educational paths, as well as to the more general discussion on what is considered gender-normative and non-normative”

The study also aims to develop methods for both calculating femininity–masculinity correlations and integrating them into gender differences research. The gender diagnosticity approach was updated to employ predictive methods based on machine learning.

About this developmental neuroscience research news

Author: Christa Mäkinen
Source: University of Helsinki
Contact: Christa Mäkinen – University of Helsinki
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Is There a g-factor of Genderdness? Using a Continuous Measure of Genderdness to Assess Sex Differences in Personality, Values, Cognitive Ability, School Grades, and Educational Track” by Ville Ilmarinen et al. European Journal of Personality


Is There a g-factor of Genderdness? Using a Continuous Measure of Genderdness to Assess Sex Differences in Personality, Values, Cognitive Ability, School Grades, and Educational Track

Some of the most persistently recurring research questions concern sex differences. Despite much progress, limited research has thus far been undertaken to investigate whether there is one general construct of genderedness that runs through various domains of human individuality.

In order to determine whether being gender typical in one way goes together with being gender typical also in other ways, we investigated whether 16-year-old Finnish girls and boys (N = 4106) differ in their personality, values, cognitive abilities, academic achievement, and educational track. To do this, we updated the prediction-focused gender diagnosticity approach by methods of cross-validation for more accurate estimation.

The preregistered analysis shows that sex differences vary across domains (Ds = 0.15–1.48), that fine-grained measures, such as grade profiles, can be accurate in predicting sex (77.5%), whereas some summary indices, such as general cognitive ability, do not perform above-chance (52.4%), and that the genderedness correlations, despite all being positive, are too weak (average partial correlation, r´ = .09, range .03–.34) to support a general factor of genderedness.

Our more exploratory analyses show that more focus on gender typicality could offer important insights into the role of gender in shaping people’s lives.

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  1. We can blindly predict which transcripts belong to boys, ‘cuz boys get shitty grades?

    Maybe neuroscience news should next educate the public on the latest research on phrenology.

    Or maybe the observation should be used to explore the systematically poor education (mostly female) teachers give to boys.

    Bad grades are not a male trait, and the fact that boys get objectively better test scores despite getting subjectively worse grades shows that the problem lies elsewhere.

  2. It’s pretty frustrating that there is so much focus on gender at such a young age. My kids are 3 and they are boys and I will raise them
    As boys until they grow up and can make a decision for themselves. Kids even in HS are too young to be making these decisions about gender and we shouldn’t force them to consider another gender other than what they are born with. If parents want to do that then great-that’s their choice but I get really irritated by these articles claiming science says that some phrase isn’t really valid.

  3. How does a group publish results like this without defining much more specifically the parameters of their primary classifications? They say Boyish and Girlish many times. What do those terms even mean? Discussing the differences in outcomes of the different sexes across different domains in terms of something like grades is good information. But saying things like “two boys were more boyish than two girls were girlish” (as a paraphrased example) is almost meaningless and disrupts my ability to understand the basic premise of this study entirely.

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