8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide. In this post, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD’s Education Directorate looks at performance in school and later.
For most of the 20th century, educators and policy makers despaired over girls’ underachievement in school and sought ways to overcome the social and cultural impediments to girls’ equal access to education.
Results from the OECD’s most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey, which directly involved more than half a million 15-year-olds (as proxy for some 28 million students) in 74 countries and economies (representing 90% of the world economy), show how many of those impediments have been toppled.
Girls outperform boys in reading in every country that participated in the 2009 PISA survey; and in OECD countries, the average gender gap in reading proficiency represents about a year’s worth of schooling. While boys score higher in mathematics in more than half of the participating countries and economies, in 25 countries there is no difference in mathematics performance between boys and girls, and in five countries, girls have slightly higher scores in mathematics. The gender gap is narrowest in science, where in most participating countries, there is no significant difference between girls’ and boys’ performance. Across the three subjects covered by PISA, reading, mathematics and science, and across all participating countries and economies, girls are as likely to be top performers as boys.
So far, so good. But before we pat ourselves on the back, let’s take note of a few other statistics:
According to the World Bank, despite important gains in girls’ enrolment in school worldwide over the past three decades, 55% of the children who are not in school–for reasons as varied as poverty, cultural practices, distance to school, and conflict–are girls.
By the time those girls who are in school turn 15, their attitudes towards their futures are already well formed. When, in 2006, PISA asked 15-year-olds what they thought they might want to do when they grew up, more girls expected to work in high-status jobs than boys. Yet among those students who cited a career in science, three times as many boys as girls saw themselves as engineers or technicians or as working with computers or in physical science, while more than twice as many girls as boys saw themselves in a career in health, the life sciences or nursing—the so-called “caring” professions. And those proportions remained the same even among boys and girls who were top performers in science. In effect, by the age of 15, even those girls most skilled in science, and with great expectations for their careers, had already ruled themselves out of some of the more high-paying jobs in the field.
Which leads us to another statistic: According to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2010, women in OECD countries who hold a college degree earn only 71% of what a man with a similar education earns. In addition to differences in career choice, another reason for the discrepancy in wages could be that women often choose to work fewer hours to accommodate family responsibilities.
Perhaps today’s more highly educated and ambitious girls will grow into the women who will help to dismantle some of the remaining impediments to a fully realised life.