by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Division, Directorate for Education and Skills
One of the most remarkable consequences of the expansion of education in OECD countries over the past decades is the reversal of the gender gap in education. From outright exclusion and discrimination in educational institutions less than a century ago, girls and young women have conquered schools and colleges. In 2013, 55% of all students graduating from a general secondary education programme were girls – ten percentage points higher than in 2000. In learning outcomes, girls now largely outperform boys, though not in all subjects. Last year, the OECD published The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, the most thorough study yet of gender differences in PISA performance. In reading, the gender gap across countries is equivalent to one year of schooling. However, in mathematics boys still outperform girls in six out of ten countries. Most worrisome is the finding that, across subject fields, 60% of all low performers are boys. Low achievement among boys, often combined with a lack of motivation and behavioural issues, and the prospect of an increasing share of unskilled men entering the labour force in the near future, is now one of the most important challenges education systems need to address.
But does this trend extend to colleges and universities? Surprisingly, the widening gender gap in higher education has raised far less public and political concern than that in secondary education. Yet, the numbers are astonishing. The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief provides the most recent data available on graduates of bachelor’s programmes. In 2013, six million students across OECD countries graduated from a higher education institution with a bachelor’s degree; 58% of them were women. This percentage ranges from 69% in Sweden to 45% in Japan. Besides Japan, only Germany, Korea, Switzerland and Turkey still have more male than female graduates. So, in terms of graduation rates, the gender gap is as significant in higher education as it is in secondary education. And comparing the female graduation rate of 58% to the fact that 54% of new entrants in bachelor’s programmes are women, women also seem to be more successful than men in completing their studies.
Part of girls’ success in secondary education may be related to hidden biases in assessments and/or the effects of a largely female teaching force. But the absence of these biases in tertiary education suggests that young women’s achievement and success in college has to be attributed to stronger motivation and harder work.
An OECD study published in 2008 provides a historical perspective, demonstrating that the trend has been going on for some time now. In 1995, equal shares of men and women were enrolled in higher education. Yet in 1998, 54% of the degrees awarded went to women. The reversal of the gender gap has happened over only a few generations: in 2014, 24% of 55-64year-old women had a tertiary degree, compared with 26% of men; but among 25-34year-olds, 46% of women, but only 36% of men, had a bachelor’s degree.
The chart above adds an important dimension to the picture: the gender gap varies across fields of study. The chart compares the shares of female graduates in the STEM fields combined, with the shares of female graduates the fields of education, humanities and social sciences combined. In the latter group, women represent over 60% of all graduates. Around 80% of all graduates in education, health and welfare are women. In contrast, only 31% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering went to women. In Belgium, Chile, Finland, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland, less than 25% of graduates in science and engineering are women. In contrast, around 40% or more of these graduates in Canada, Italy, Poland, Turkey and in the partner countries Saudi Arabia and South Africa are women. These gender differences in bachelor’s degrees across fields of study resemble the divergent career expectations among 15-year-old students, as recorded by PISA, and the gendered life and career choices later on. They also account for a significant share of the gender gap in earnings from employment.
So the picture for young women is decidedly mixed. Girls and young women are using education – first at secondary, then at tertiary level – as part of a strategy to improve their life chances. Their success in colleges and universities is an important component of their overall greater participation in the economy and society. Yet, huge gender differences in the choices of subjects pursued in higher education, combined with powerful and persistent gender stereotypes in work places and along career paths, prevent women from reaping the full benefits of their higher education.
Who are the bachelor’s and master’s graduates? Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 37, by Corinne Heckmann and Camila de Moraes
Les indicateurs de l’éducation à la loupe, issue No. 37 (French version)
Higher Education to 2030, Volume 1, Demography.
The ABC of Gender Equality in Education; Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence