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Boys Don't Cry? The public's understanding of children's issues and the gender gap

We asked the public if they thought that given issues affect boys more, girls more, or both equally. How can we use the findings to encourage fairness?
Rei Kanemura

It’s back to school time! This year the gap between male and female students reached a record high.  Girls are more likely to go to university than boys, and the gap is widening.[1] It also made a headline recently that boys beat girls in A level exams for the first time in 17 years – in other words, girls had been doing better for a really long time.[2] Looking more closely, we also hear that on average girls perform better at GCSE than boys, and this is a long-term trend.[3]

The gender gap is not a new topic at all, and we hear a lot of discussions about addressing gender inequality from an early age, as seen in a recent BBC programme ‘No More Boys and Girls’. What particular issues do we think affect boys or girls? Do we believe boys and girls have different challenges? In our recent survey of the UK general public, we prompted a number of issues, from bullying and impacts of family breakdown, to sexual harassment and body image issues.

When we asked if they think the issue affects boys more, girls more, or both equally, we found that at least a half of the public thought that most issues affect boys and girls equally. The exceptions were sexual harassment and body image – the public see both issues as affecting girls more. Half of the public think sexual harassment affects girls more. As for body image, 46% said it affects girls more, 41% thought affects both, and only 3% said affect boys more. 29% of the public thought more girls are affected by sexual abuse than boys (2%), while about 60% said it affects both boys and girls.[4]

Do the public think some issues affect boys more? Bullying and physical violence, for example, was one of the issues the public were slightly more likely to think are affecting boys (12%) more than girls (8%), while the majority (71%) think it affects them both. Similarly, sexual orientation and identity issues saw 11% of the public saying it affects boys more as opposed to 8% thinking it affects girls more, while 67% thought it affects both. In fact, we didn’t find any other issue which the public thought affects boys more. What we can derive from this piece of research is that while the public think many issues affect children of both sexes, they seem to have better knowledge of how they might affect girls. This may be attributed to a number of campaigns and initiatives – like Girlguiding’s anti-airbrushing campaign – which aimed to tackle these issues. Thanks to them, we now know more about how these issues affect girls and young women.

It’s great news that we have better knowledge about these issues, but there’s a danger of labelling some as girls issue and as a result, leaving behind boys who might be affected. Numbers may be small, but it doesn’t mean they are not affected by sexual abuse or body image issues. A survey of primary and secondary school boys has found that 53% of them felt advertising was a major source of pressure to look good.[5] Also, boys are far more likely to receive an exclusion than girls.[6]

This is not to say that we need to pay more attention to boys than girls. As many reports indicate – and as the majority of the public think – these issues affect both of them. It is our job as a collective society to create an environment where both boys and girls feel comfortable with talking about an issue. Thanks to the work of mental health charities, we also know that men are less likely to seek help than women.[7] So it’s important to keep listening to the voices of both men and women from a young age and not consider an issue to be affecting just boys or girls. And if there is an issue that makes it difficult for a boy or a girl to seek help, then we should address the underlying barrier.


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