Male and female routes to success

Robin Samuel explores the gendered link between success and well-being in education and beyond.

Young male and female smilingMuch of the recent interest in educational gender differences is based on differences in academic performance. Several studies have shown that young women now out-perform males in terms of school grades and university degrees. But while there is a lot of research into the reasons for this shift, and into gender gaps in reading and maths achievement, little research has been done on the consequences of these differences in educational and early occupational success.

This is surprising. Being successful in education and early occupation is not only a marker of a successful transition to adulthood, but also has implications for the well-being of young people. Like educational achievement, well-being differs by gender. Young women typically report lower levels of well-being and related mental health factors, such as self-esteem, than men. There is now research suggesting that well-being is not only the outcome of desirable life events, but might also act as a resource to foster educational success (Diener, 2009; Samuel, Bergman, & Hupka-Brunner, 2013).

The study of links between success and well-being is a relatively new development in the social sciences. The links between the two are often explained by applying a social comparison perspective based on the work of Leon Festinger (1954). This approach assumes that humans have a general tendency to compare themselves to others. Well-being is then a function of comparing one’s achievement or social position to other people’s.

Recent studies in this field have found that men’s well-being is less sensitive to critical life events and social comparisons than women’s. The explanation put forward is that women are socialised to take a more comparative perspective, placing more value than men on the opinions others hold of them (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2001). It has also been found that socialisation leads to different coping styles. Young women tend to be more thoughtful than men, who instead tend to follow expected masculine norms such as controlling their emotions and emphasising positive aspects in the face of failure.

To explore the gendered link between success and well-being, I conducted an analysis of a large-scale data set generated by the Transitions from Education to Employment (TREE) project team (TREE, 2011). TREE focuses on the post-compulsory educational and labour market pathways of a school-leaver cohort in Switzerland that participated in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2000 (PISA, 2000). After this initial survey, further data was collected annually from 2001 to 2007, resulting in a unique dataset that covers a wide range of measures.

My analysis shows that young women’s well-being is more affected by failure than men’s (Samuel, 2014), and more positively affected by success. Analysing the effects of well-being on success shows that, in general, well-being is positively associated with the likelihood of being successful.

The overall goal of this study was to show that the interplay between success and well-being is reciprocal and gendered. The results suggest that women are more susceptible to social comparison effects, and that the gendered coping styles at play are mostly due to socialisation processes.

It is likely that the relatively inert well-being patterns of young men conceal more complex masculinities. For example, low-status men might report constant levels of well-being as a form of compensatory masculinity (Pyke, 1996). Moreover, the increasing proportion of academically successful young women is likely to affect these young men’s personal perception of their achievements. This development might fuel new gendered expectations of the meaning of success, and even affect the well-being of future school-leaver cohorts.

Robin Samuel is currently Guest Researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Bern, Switzerland and Honorary Fellow at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.

  1. Diener, E. (2009). The Science of Well-Being: The Collected Works of Ed Diener. Springer.
  2. Festinger, L. (1954). A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations, 7(2), 117–140. doi:10.1177/001872675400700202
  3. Keller, A. C., Samuel, R., Semmer, N. K., & Bergman, M. M. (Eds.). (2014). Psychological, Educational and Sociological Perspectives on Success and Well-Being in Career Development. New York: Springer.
  4. Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2001). Gender Differences in Depression. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(5), 173–176. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.00142
  5. PISA, C. (2000). PISA International Data Base. Paris: OECD.
  6. Pyke, K. D. (1996). Class-Based Masculinities the Interdependence of Gender, Class, and Interpersonal Power. Gender & Society, 10(5), 527–549. doi:10.1177/089124396010005003
  7. Samuel, R. (2014). The Gendered Interplay between Success and Well-Being during Transitions. Educational Research, 56(2), 202–218. doi:10.1080/00131881.2014.898915
  8. Samuel, R., Bergman, M. M., & Hupka-Brunner, S. (2013). The Interplay between Educational Achievement, Occupational Success, and Well-Being. Social Indicators Research, 111(1), 75–96. doi:10.1007/s11205-011-9984-5
  9. TREE (Ed.). (2011). Project Documentation 2000-2010. Basel: TREE.

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