A closer look at gender gaps in education and beyond
Today’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.
Why boys and girls still don’t have an equal chance at school on the educationtoday blog