What’s at the root of women’s absence in STEM occupations?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

If you sift through all the education data the OECD has produced over the past year, you’ll come up with decidedly mixed results when it comes to women’s (and girls’) progress. Education at a Glance 2013 told us that gender gaps in educational attainment are not only narrowing, but are, in some cases, reversing, and that women are now more likely than men to enter and complete a university-level programme. Results from the first Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), found that gender differences in the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) have narrowed considerably among 16-24 year-olds, and that, among younger adults, there is, on average, no gender difference in proficiency in numeracy or literacy. In fact, in those countries where there is a difference between young men’s and young women’s levels of literacy, it is young women who score higher.

So, given these data, we have reason to be optimistic.

Unfortunately, this is only part of the story; there are also some other data to consider: Education at a Glance revealed that, among tertiary-educated adults, women still earn less than men (only in Austria, Belgium, Finland, New Zealand, Slovenia and Spain do the earnings of tertiary-educated women amount to 75% or more of men’s earnings; in Brazil, Chile and Estonia, university-educated women earn 65% or less of what similarly educated men earn). What might explain these gender-related disparities in pay?

As the publication also reported, women are still less likely than men to work full time; and 15-29 year-old women are twice as likely as men the same age to be neither in the labour force nor looking for a job. Meanwhile, the Survey of Adult Skills found that in all countries that participated in the survey, similar proportions of men (36%) as women (32%) are proficient in using ICTs. But the survey also found that in 15 of 23 participating countries, men use ICT at work significantly more often than women do – and that the extent to which problem-solving skills are used at work accounts for nearly half the gender gap in wages.

One of the most troubling of findings comes from the PISA 2012 survey of 15-year-old students. Based on information gathered from students through questionnaires, PISA found that, even among the highest-achieving girls (many of whom perform just as well as boys in mathematics), girls have self-sabotaging attitudes towards mathematics: they are more likely to feel anxious towards mathematics, and have less confidence in their own mathematical skills and in their ability to solve mathematics problems than boys.

These attitudes have repercussions later on, as can be seen in other data from Education at a Glance. That publication reports that, in 2011, an average of only 14% of women entering university-level education enrolled in science-related fields (which include science and engineering) or in manufacturing and construction, compared to 39% of men who entered this level of education in these fields. If so few women aim for the so-called STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), there will continue to be few role models in these fields for young girls to emulate, and the cycle will simply perpetuate itself.

What all these data, combined, tell us is that we have no reason to be complacent. The gender gap in students’ self-beliefs about their abilities in mathematics has remained stable in most countries since 2003. In the short term, changing these mindsets may require making mathematics more interesting to girls, identifying and eliminating gender stereotypes in textbooks, promoting female role models, and using learning materials that appeal to girls. Over the longer term, shrinking the gender gap in mathematics performance will require the concerted effort of parents, teachers and society, as a whole, to change the clichéd notions of what boys and girls excel at, what they enjoy doing, and what they believe they can achieve.

Girls and women have made genuine and enormous gains in education and in the labour force over the past half century; but as long as girls continue to tell themselves that they’re no good at math – or science or engineering or any other subject where men have traditionally dominated – even in the face of hard evidence to the contrary, then we’re still losing half of our talent to the destructive power of stereotypes.

International Women’s Day
OECD Gender Data Portal
OECD Insights Blog: Gender Quiz
Are boys and girls equally prepared for life?
Photo credit: Moscow, USSR – Circa 1920s students-biologists conduct a scientific experiment / @shutterstock

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