Why do men do better at exams?

June 2022

Why does male business school students’ competitiveness lead to better grades, asks Professor Jari Huikku.

The view that accounting is a masculine discipline has for a long time been a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a cycle in which gendered preconceptions about the job discourage female students in higher education from choosing courses in accounting, decisions which reinforce the attitude that the accounting workforce is a male-dominated one.

Part of the reason for this stereotype’s existence is that men on average score higher than women in exams on introductory-level accounting courses. Does this mean they are better at the job? It’s not that simple, for when other types of assessment, such as teamwork exercises are taken into account, there is a negligible gender imbalance at most.

So it’s not an issue of competency. Instead, there is something specifically about accounting exams that facilitates the overachievement of male students and depresses the learning of females.

One linking factor between gender and exam performance is the different motivational goals set by male and female students; the other is expectations for their future careers.

Exams appear to support a performance-approach to goal-setting, which means students that are motivated by a desire to get better grades than their fellows are more likely to do well. If a link could be proved between gender and the likelihood of adopting performance-approach goals in education, this would explain the gap in exam performance.

In the study conducted by me and my colleagues (professors Emma-Riikka Myllymäki from Aalto University School of Business and Hannu Ojala from the University of Eastern Finland) we examined the course points and high school grade point averages of 165 firsy-year undergraduates taking an introductory accounting course. We compared this performance data against survey responses from students explaining what motivated them in their studies.

The aim of the research was to see whether men and women tend to set different goals while in education, and whether these trends could explain the lack of parity in exam performance.
We discovered that performance-approach motivation is far more common in male students, suggesting that they are on average much more competitive than their female counterparts. They were also far more likely to have high expectations for their future careers.

These expectations play a role in encouraging rivalry in male students, as they strive against each other to ‘win’ the best grades.

Three other motivating goals were studied.

Mastery-approach focuses not on getting good grades but on understanding a subject as thoroughly as possible. Avoidant goals were also observed: performance-avoidance is the aim to not get significantly lower grades than others, and students displaying mastery-avoidance are anxious not to know less about the course than their peers.

The findings show there is no notable difference in these latter three motivation styles between men and women. Being driven to get the best grade stands alone as the only goal which male students are far more likely to have and is rarer in females.

Furthermore, the fact that female students are on average anticipating less success in their accounting careers than men could steer them away from being results driven. They instead prioritise learning the course material as well as they can, or at least aim not to fall too far behind their male counterparts.

In essence, a student’s gender affects their likelihood of being motivated to strive for high performance directly and indirectly. Male students tend to be more competitive, and this is exacerbated by the higher expectations they have for their careers than females. This divergence means that although men and women are equally likely to leave accounting courses with a high level of knowledge, having a strong drive to get the best grades means men also excel in exams.

This is a problem because female students typically enter further education with better high school grades than males. We are witnessing a depression in their academic performance because the type of assessments used in entry level accounting courses are biased towards the learning orientation and expectations of men.

Inclusivity is a fundamental issue that merits attention. Learning environment, course content, assessment and teaching methods ought to aim at gender neutrality. The status quo needs to be challenged and changes in the learning environment of accounting courses in business schools and further education should be considered.

High-level academic outcomes for both genders would be best ensured by understanding that female students’ less competitive goal-setting and lower expectations of learning accounting need to be considered when designing accounting courses.

Teachers and course planners should seek to alleviate harmful stereotypes that have become associated with the accounting field by bridging gender differences in competitiveness.
The article, entitled ‘Gender difference in the first course in accounting: An achievement goal approach’, has been published in the British Accounting Review journal.

• Professor Jari Huikku is a lecturer and researcher for the Department of Accounting at Aalto University School of Business