A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond

PISA genderToday’s post is from OECD Deputy Secretary-General Stefan Kapferer

“In a world in search of growth, women will help find it, if they face a level playing field instead of an insidious conspiracy.” Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, didn’t mince words last week when she called for dismantling the legal barriers that prevent many women around the world from participating in their economies. She framed her argument in economic terms, saying that a previous study found that having as many women as men in the labour force could boost economic growth by 5% in the United States, 9% in Japan and 34% in Egypt.

A new PISA report, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence (pdf), shows that the barriers against women’s full participation in the work force are not necessarily written into law. They can be as seemingly innocuous as parents’ expectations for their daughter’s future or students’ beliefs in their own abilities.

For example, the report, released today, finds that less than 5% of 15-year-old girls in OECD countries contemplate pursuing a career in engineering or computing, while 20% of boys do. What accounts for this gender difference in career expectations? PISA finds that girls – even high-achieving girls – have less confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science, and are more anxious towards mathematics, than boys. On average across OECD countries, the difference in mathematics performance between high-achieving girls and boys is 19 PISA score points, the equivalent of around half a year of school. But when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence in mathematics and of anxiety towards mathematics, the gender gap in performance disappears. If girls don’t believe in their aptitude for certain subjects, why would they continue to study those subjects when they are no longer required to?

The study also finds that, when required to “think like scientists” at school, girls underperform considerably compared to boys. For example, girls tend to underachieve compared to boys when they are asked to formulate situations mathematically. On average across OECD countries, boys outperform girls in this skill by around 16 PISA score points – the equivalent of nearly five months of school. Boys also outperform girls – by 15 score points – in the ability to apply their knowledge of science to a given situation. This gender difference in the ability to think like a scientist may be related to students’ self-confidence. When students are more self-confident, they give themselves the freedom to fail, to engage in the trial-and-error processes that are fundamental to acquiring knowledge in mathematics and science.

More worrying still is the fact that, in 2012, 14% of boys and 9% of girls did not attain the PISA baseline level of proficiency in any of the three core subjects measured in PISA – reading, mathematics and science. Why are boys more likely to be among the lowest achievers in school? The report finds that gender differences in school performance are linked to gender differences in student behaviour, both in and outside of school. For example, boys spend one hour less per week on homework than girls – and each hour of homework per week translates into a 4-point higher score in the PISA reading, mathematics and science tests. Outside of school, boys spend more time playing video games than girls and less time reading for enjoyment, particularly complex texts, like fiction. Reading proficiency is the foundation upon which all other learning is built; when boys don’t read well, their performance in other school subjects suffers too.

While the report makes clear that there are no innate gender differences in academic ability, it also shows that, unfortunately, there are also no gender gaps in how well – or badly – prepared 15-year-olds are to enter the working world or continue their studies after compulsory education. PISA shows that girls are more likely than boys to get information about future studies or careers through Internet research, while boys are more likely than girls to get hands-on experience by working as interns, job shadowing or visiting a job fair. But across the OECD countries that distributed a questionnaire about career expectations, almost one in four girls and one in five boys reported that they did not know how to search for a job. Some 43% of girls and 37% of boys reported that they had not mastered the skills needed to perform well at a job interview; and almost one in three boys and girls reported that they had not acquired the skills needed to write a CV or a summary of their qualifications.

So how can we dismantle some of these barriers to boys’ and girls’ personal fulfilment and to their full participation in their societies later on? The report emphasises that parents and teachers can become more aware of their own gender biases. For example, why is it that in all countries and economies surveyed about parents’ expectations for their children were parents more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in a STEM field – even when boys and girls perform equally well in mathematics and science? Why is it that teachers consistently give girls better marks, even when boys and girls perform similarly on the PISA test? And why aren’t employers seeking and welcoming equal numbers of girls and boys for internships or job shadowing?

As this report makes clear, we are all responsible for giving our children equal chances to succeed in school and in life. Not only does it make economic sense, it is simply the right thing to do.

Useful links

PISA in Focus N°49: What lies behind gender inequality in education?

Why boys and girls still don’t have an equal chance at school on the educationtoday blog

Try the PISA questions


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10 comments to “A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond”

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  1. Strazdas - 25/03/2015 Reply

    There is no legal bariers at least in US and EU for any gender to pick a field of study they want. the only barrier currently in existence there is that of personal choices and priorities. I, for one, am for free choice, instead of being forced to study a field one does not like.

    The Christine Lagarde quote at the beginning of the article shows that she seems to not know what she is talking about and i am quite scared that people so detached from real world are managing directors in such important institutions.

    • Markus Meier - 17/02/2017 Reply

      Very good comment. If boys fail (and they do!) in school, it is their behaviour (for which they are ascribed full responsibility), if girls do (and they do not!), it is society – “all of us” etc. !

  2. lynn oliver - 05/04/2015 Reply

    I believe we are seeing two very different areas working together to create confusion regarding girls succeeding in stem or technical fields along with the growing Male Crisis.
    To understand how boys/girls, men/women are learning and growing today, we need to first understand more, how our individual environments and differential treatment greatly affect thinking, learning, motivation to learn, and success in the information age. We must redefine our average stress as many layers of mental work from past, present, future experiences, problems, fears, needs, circumstances, anything that creates mental work. These layers take up real mental energy leaving less mental energy to think, learn, and grow in the information age. Currently the way girls and boys are treated beginning in infancy through adulthood is favoring us as women. However, many women are still looking for innersecurity in areas not seen by many women who are taking advantage of the information age.
    1. I believe years ago and still more in some countries, our innersecurity or feelings of security was and still exists for many women, the idea of having a home, family, and love from those around her. The more stable, kind, verbal interaction along with more mental/emotional support creates lower average stress; high social vocabulary; more close support/care/trust in adults; and more ease of learning. However, many women although have been led or choose from family, way or life, or comfort, those lower planes of innersecurity. Today, while women are much better prepared for academics and competition in the information age, many women are still choosing family over career. I feel this can create less enthusiasm for some higher maths and sciences or other, complex academics thus the lower figures of confidence later. I feel though many women are taking advantage of the academics in many countries where there is more emphasis in information age skills. So the transition of confidence and education may be relative to women in different countries moving from ideas of family to information age skills. I feel women are moving up though, due to more correct treatment in many developed countries and are now competing more successfully than Male counterparts. I do feel the technical areas may be much slower in developing Females in those areas due to many many more, white collar areas in the information age women find more rewarding.
    I feel at the same time, there is a small segment of Male students from different countries who have come from more middle class environments who are able to compete very successfully in the technical fields. I feel those Males (like other Males) have a dubious advantage of receiving love and honor only on condition of some achievement, status, or position. The combination of more support form those middle class families and the continued need to achieve for feelings of self-worth provides much incentive to strive for the higher information age planes in society. Butt—- I feel the majority of Males today are still being raised with much more aggressive, less supportive treatment to make them tougher to compete still in the more physical world, yet still asked to compete in the information age. I feel the more aggressive treatment, with much less proper verbal interaction and other supports are slowly taking its toll on the majority of the Male population.
    As a result, I see, women much better able to compete in the information age and will slowly even creep into the technical fields in greater and greater numbers. I see Males more rapidly losing the ability to compete in the many many white collar areas due to improper treatment, and over time, even be minority of workers in the technical fields due to fewer Males able to compete with the many more numbers of women being pushed forward through earlier successful generations of educated women. My learning theory shows how our individual environments are creating these differences from an early age, “not genetics or effort”. We need to look in these environmental and environmental treatment differences if we are to help our sons and daughters compete equally in the information age.

    • Markus Meier - 17/02/2017 Reply

      Differences between boys and girls are not product of individual/collective “learning” (be it in a gender-awareness seminar or a cloister or anything in between), but of the evolution of bimorph organisms – a learning that started 380 million years ago and can ignored educationally only at very high costs for students and education systems alike.

  3. Gertraud Benke - 14/08/2015 Reply

    There is much to discuss about this report, which undoubtedly tackles an important issue. It is laudable that the OECD pulls together the results from different studies to specifically address gender equity and education.
    At the same time, I am rather irritated and baffled, that a report on gender equity ignores the longstanding criticism of unequal gender representations , and presents “gender results” throughout with boys as the baseline and girls as the deviation. I thought, all right, that is appropriate for chapter two with the focus on boys, they will change the baseline to girls and boys as the other in the next chapter with the focus on girls. But this was not to happen.
    It is a shame that a report on gender equity of the OECD in 2015 serves to continue unequal representational forms.

    • Markus Meier - 17/02/2017 Reply

      The gender-report does by no means. Instead it takes girls as reference (and asks how to improve their performance ever more) and boys as the deviant, “disturbing” sex (shrugging shoulders about the causes). Your feminist view blinds you here.

  4. nunya - 18/04/2017 Reply

    One thing we cannot forget is that women naturally are going to choose different careers than men. Women tend to choose nursing careers and teaching positions. When we look at how different males and females are, we can see that women are not being oppressed, they are just choosing different careers. Feminists do not want to see the clear differences in male and female.

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