Breaking barriers

Discovering the historical roots of gender disparities in high school performance

Latest presentation

Historical Economics and Development Group annual workshop: ‘Growth, History and Development’
6–7 March 2024: University of Southern Denmark

Christian Møller Dahl
University of Southern Denmark

Nick Ford
Lund University

Kristin Ranestad
University of Oslo

Paul Sharp
University of Southern Denmark

Christian Emil Westermann
University of Southern Denmark


A persistent trend highlights gender disparities in high school performance. Boys tend to drop out more frequently and achieve lower grades on average compared to girls. To comprehensively understand these disparities, we propose a historical analysis. Our study presents a historical comparative analysis of high school grades for boys and girls, spanning 130 years, starting in 1813 with Norway’s first university, the Royal Frederik University. The pivotal year 1882 allowed girls to take the high school exam (examen artium), opening access to university-level programs.

Our empirical approach involves examining grade lists, which contain detailed individual-level data on graduates, including parental information, school attended, program chosen, and grades in individual subjects. Linking this data to the historical population registers allows us to analyse and compare individual grades over time, as well as the relationships between grades and parental or grandparental grades, birthplace, and examining institution. We aim to answer key questions regarding the historical performance of boys and girls in high school, exploring factors such as family, region, teacher influence, and changes over time.

Preliminary findings for the period 1882-1919 indicate that girls consistently outperformed boys in various subjects. However, performance disparities evolved over time, with initial academic excellence by girls gradually converging with boys’ performance. Future research steps include further data organization and analysis, exploring regional variations in grades, and investigating whether specific teachers or examiners exhibited grading preferences. By adopting this historical lens, we aim to deepen our understanding of the mechanisms shaping gender inequality in academic performance. The analysis contributes to the limited literature on this topic, providing insights into the historical context of high school grading.