Why do gender gaps in education and work persist?

By Marta Encinas-Martin

OECD Education Gender Ambassador, Directorate for Education and Skills

In most countries today, women attain higher levels of education than men, on average, but they are less likely than men to be employed and, when they are employed, they earn less. Why is it that narrowing the gender gap in educational attainment has made little or no difference to gender gaps in labour market outcomes?

Over the past decade, women’s participation in higher education has significantly expanded in OECD and partner countries. In almost all OECD countries, the proportion of tertiary-educated women is larger than the proportion of tertiary-educated men: 40% of 25-64 year-old women now have a tertiary degree, on average across OECD countries, up from 30% in 2008. In contrast, in 2018, 34% of 25-64 year-old men were tertiary educated, an increase of just 7 percentage points since 2008.

Girls also outperform boys in school. Girls scored much higher – 30 points higher – than boys in the PISA 2018 reading assessment; and in mathematics, where boys traditionally outperform girls, girls scored just 5 points lower than boys, on average across OECD countries. Conventional wisdom asserts that boys are better than girls at mathematics; but boys significantly outperformed girls in mathematics in less than half of the 79 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2018.

In science, girls outperformed boys by two score points in PISA 2018; and in around half of the countries/economies assessed, the gender gap in science performance was not statistically significant. In only six countries/economies was boys’ performance in science significantly better than girls’ performance; the opposite, girls being better, was observed in 35 countries and economies.

In almost all PISA-participating countries and economies, girls reported more often than boys, and to a greater extent, that they fear failure.

Yet, despite good academic performance and the positive trends in women’s overall participation in higher education, gender gaps in the labour market remain as wide as ever. Results from PISA suggest that these gaps might have begun to open in secondary school. Even when they outperform boys academically, girls are less likely than boys to choose the pathways through education and fields of study that lead to the highest-paid professions, which, today, involve science, mathematics, engineering or computing. On average across OECD countries, only 14% of girls who were top performers in science or mathematics reported that they expect to work as professionals in science or engineering while 26% of top-performing boys so reported. These decisions can have adverse consequences for women’s labour market prospects.

What influences these career expectations? Attitudes towards failure and competition may play a role. In general, boys and girls seem to experience the fear of failure differently. In almost all PISA-participating countries and economies, girls reported more often than boys, and to a greater extent, that they fear failure. On average across OECD countries, 64% of girls reported that when they fail, it makes them doubt their plans for the future, and 62% reported that failure makes them feel afraid that they might not have enough talent. Excessive fear of failure may check ambition and lead to a preference for pursuing more easily attainable, but perhaps less rewarding, goals. In addition, in 64 of the 79 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2018, girls expressed less positive attitudes towards competition than boys did.

The career expectations of 15-year-olds are mirrored in the field-of-study choices made by men and women in university. For example, women are far more likely than men to study subjects related to education, and health and welfare, while men are more likely to choose the broad fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – and graduates of these latter fields are in great demand in the labour markets in OECD countries. On average across OECD countries in 2017, only 20% of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes and 30% of new entrants to bachelor’s programmes in STEM fields were women. In contrast, women made up 79% of new entrants to short-cycle tertiary programmes, 77% of new entrants to bachelor’s degree programmes and 64% of new entrants to master’s degree programmes in health and welfare.

The choices teenagers make also have an impact on how their cognitive skills develop from adolescence to early adulthood. The Survey of Adult Skills, (PIAAC), measures literacy and numeracy proficiency in the population of 16-65 year-olds. It shows that girls’ advantage in reading proficiency disappears by early adulthood, while boys’ advantage in mathematics proficiency increases steadily, in an almost linear fashion, over the same period. A plausible explanation for these patterns is that men specialise in fields of study and/or occupations that make more intensive use of numeracy skills. At the same time, men are able to close the gender gap in reading because literacy is a more transversal skill that everybody needs in order to succeed in education and the labour market.

Thus, seemingly innocuous factors, like differences in adolescents’ attitudes towards failure and competition, and their career expectations, translate into differences in choices of fields of study and professions, which, in turn, influence earnings and other labour market outcomes. Other social and economic factors continue to impede women’s progress in the labour market; but evidence from OECD studies suggest that early interventions that promote girls’ self-confidence and willingness to compete could help narrow gender gaps in school and later on in life.

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