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Women are better than men at learning English. That’s not necessarily a good sign.

Students sit an annual college entrance exam in Seoul. (ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images)

They spend more time studying, and they read more: Girls outperform boys in a variety of subjects worldwide, a study from earlier this year found.

An extensive new survey, released by the teaching company Education First, comes to another surprising conclusion: In most of the countries that were surveyed, women were better than men at learning English as a non-native language. In total, 70 countries were part of the analysis. The findings confirm other surveys, such as the results from the international Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL,  in which women also outperformed men.

"In several cases, the differences between women and men were astonishingly big," said Kate Bell, one of the report's authors. A close look at the report reveals that females outperforming males on the test could be a consequence of prolonged gender inequality. More on that a bit lower.

English early on in their lives. "Women use a wider range of learning strategies, which helps them to memorize vocabularies better, for instance," said Bell, referring to academic studies that have come to a similar conclusion.

She and her colleagues have observed that this trend is particularly dominant among younger pupils. "We looked at Mexico, which does not have a particularly wide gap between male and female English skills. But when we examined to what extent girls and boys differed from each other in that regard, we were surprised how much girls were ahead of their male counterparts," Bell said. As pupils grow up, the differences gradually disappear, partially because boys catch up later during their college years or at work.

Secondly, in many countries, women are over-represented in higher education, and in certain degrees. "It's a phenomenon we now even observe in the Middle East," Bell said. Moreover, men disproportionately study for degrees that do not necessitate extraordinary English language skills. Women, however, are particularly over-represented in social sciences and the humanities.

"In countries with low gender equity, women are more likely to be pushed towards careers in the humanities versus engineering, math or science," Education First spokesman Adam Bickelman explained.

Data provided by the United Nations confirms that assumption: "Women are just as likely as men to graduate in the fields of Science and Social sciences, business and law," the organization summarizes on its Web site. "In contrast, men continue to dominate the field of Engineering, manufacturing and construction."

Interestingly, the countries where there is little difference between the sexes in learning English are also among the world's leaders in gender equality. The report singles out Nordic countries, which top most gender-equality rankings. In Finland and Denmark, men and women performed nearly equally. In Norway, the situation was even reversed, with men being slightly better than women.

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