Great (Career) Expectations? A Tale of Two Genders

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
International Women’s Day (March 8) is always a great occasion to focus on the obvious: that some women have made great strides in recent decades in fulfilling their potential; that there is still a long way to go before all women enjoy true equality in all societies. This month’s edition of PISA in Focus decided to dig a little deeper: given that girls are doing as well as, if not better than, boys in most core subjects at school, do boys and girls now expect to pursue similar careers when they become adults?

In 2006, PISA asked 15-year-old students what they expect to be doing in early adulthood, around the age of 30. In almost all OECD countries, girls are more ambitious than boys: on average, girls were significantly more likely than boys to expect to work in high-status careers such as legislators, senior officials, managers and professionals. France, Germany and Japan were the only OECD countries where similar proportions of boys and girls aspired to these careers; while in Greece and Poland the proportion of girls expecting to work in these careers was 20 percentage points higher than that of boys.

PISA found that not only do boys and girls have different aspirations, in general, they also expect to have careers in very different fields – regardless of how well they perform in school. For example, the fact that girls in many countries have caught up with or even surpassed boys in science proficiency does not necessarily mean that girls want to pursue all types of science-related careers. In fact, careers in “engineering and computing” still attract relatively few girls. On average among OECD countries, fewer than 5% of girls, as compared with 18% of boys, expected to be working in engineering and computing as young adults. This is remarkable, especially because the definition of computing and engineering includes fields like architecture, which is not particularly associated with either gender.

And even among the highest-achieving students, career expectations differed between boys and girls; in fact, their expectations mirrored those of their lower-achieving peers. For example, few top-performing girls expected to enter engineering and computing.

But in every OECD country, PISA found that more girls than boys reported that they wanted to pursue a career in health services. On average, 16% of girls expected a career in health services, excluding nursing and midwifery, compared to only 7% of boys. This suggests that although girls who are high-achievers in science may not expect to become engineers or computer scientists, they direct their higher ambitions towards achieving the top places in other science-related professions.

The kind of gender differences in career expectations that PISA reveals may be one of the factors behind gender-segregated labour markets, which are still prevalent in many countries and which are often associated with large differences in wages and working conditions – not to mention wasted talent and thwarted human potential.

Meanwhile, one of the most gender-segregated fields turns out to be education. Another OECD study found that, on average among the 23 countries that participated in the Teaching and Learning International Survey, almost 70% of lower secondary school teachers were women – while only 45% of school principals were.

Which brings us back to the obvious for International Women’s Day 2012: Some of us have made great strides, indeed; but we all still have a long way to go.

For more information:
on PISA:
PISA in Focus N°14: What kinds of careers do boys and girls expect for themselves
Full set of PISA in Focus:

Photo credit: © Everett Collection / Shutterstock

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