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


Is happiness a woman ?

BLIToday’s post is by Gaël Brulé, PhD student at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Scientific Director of Spinoza Factory

Is happiness a woman ? That is at least what Nietzsche wrote in Thus spoke Zarathustra, a philosophical poem in which Zarathustra (the Persian name of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, an old Iranian religious philosophy) ironically says “Happiness runs after me, because I do not run after women. Happiness is the woman itself”.

This may seem a bit opaque, especially when you know the complicated relationship Nietzsche had with women, but nonetheless it is interesting to observe that in the scientific literature, the vast majority of happiness studies seem to indicate that women are happier than men, even if recent studies show that this gap in gender happiness has eroded in the last decades. They are happier married, happier when single, at work and pretty much throughout their life; only retired and divorced men seem slightly happier than their feminine counterparts.

If the results seem to go pretty much all in the same direction, it is thus legitimate and interesting to wonder why this is the case and, going a bit further, to see if we can give happiness a sex or a gender. Let’s see if values can shed light on this difference in happiness. Sociologist Geert Hofstede has defined a range of indicators to compare cultures in countries according to several criteria, such as power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity /femininity values. Arrindell and Veenhoven have shown that feminine values are more conducive to happiness than masculine values.

Hofstede defined the masculine values as linked to action, hierarchy, duty, power and nationalism, whereas feminine values encompass collaboration, intuition, community and egalitarianism. These criteria are very commonly used and at the same regularly criticized. The way they are measured can, indeed, be seen as ethnocentric with western criteria. The way the indicators are built can easily be questioned and the fact that they can overshadow local differences has been highlighted.

Furthermore, the actual labeling of the indexes might be debated and in particular the masculine/feminine one. Unless it is proven otherwise, these values seem mostly socially constructed, not “natural”, but these labels seem to indicate that there is something natural in the values attributed to men and women. As Georges Orwell famously wrote in his book 1984, ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’. Therefore, it might be relevant to change the labels of the two sets of values: the “feminine” cohesive values might be called horizontal values whereas the differentiating, comparative, “masculine” values could be seen as vertical values. After this semantic reflection, let’s explore what these values can reveal in terms of happiness.

The scientific literature shows that too much hierarchy isn’t a good basis for happiness to flourish. Too much competition has also been shown to hinder happiness, whereas the positive effects of collaboration on happiness have largely been proved. The “masculine” values are also linked to external values such as social status and materialism, which are negatively correlated with happiness (money is positively correlated with happiness, up to a point, but actively seeking it is not). The “feminine” societal matrix seems, therefore, a more fertile ground for happiness than the masculine one. Thus, the difference in happiness between the two sexes might be due to a difference in happiness between genders.

A macro-study shows a particularly revealing view: when comparing the countries on Hofstede’s male/female scale, one realizes that all the happiest countries are those whose structure is the most horizontal (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland), while countries endorsing vertical, “masculine” values (for instance Japan) are typically much lower in terms of happiness.

At first sight, men seem to largely benefit from a system that has been built by the patriarchate. Men are overrepresented in big companies, governments, prestigious positions. Iin brief, they largely occupy practically every high position and keep the key positions of the current economic system. Then how could men be less happy than women? Would men be the first victims of a system created by the patriarchate? One could wonder. Indeed, for instance, the very DNA of capitalism is largely anchored in “masculine” values: maximization of profits, struggle for prestige, competition.

By strictly separating gender roles – production roles for men, support roles for women – on top of keeping women away from the highest positions, has the patriarchate forced men to endorse values that handicap them in terms of happiness? It seems so. At a micro level, structures that leave the most space for women see not only their level of happiness rising, but also men’s level of happiness. From a certain “masculine” (as socially constructed) point of view, happiness is a zero-sum game, a win-lose situation. From a “feminine” point of view it is rather an expansive resource that can increase when shared.

This could encourage people who are afraid of gender studies to follow the path of leveling differences between genders. Down the path, more happiness for men and women. Letting go of the framework of the past can be hard and might hurt, but gentlemen, let us express our feminine side, it’s probably the best way towards happiness, for women, for us, for society.

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

OECD work on gender

What’s the difference? Try our International Women’s Day quiz and find out!

Admit it, you're surprised
Admit it, you’re surprised!

“How abominable before God is the Empire or Rule of Wicked Woman, yea, of a traitress and bastard.” That’s the opening of John Knox’s 1558 diatribe The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in which he explains that “To promote a Woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation or city is:
A. Repugnant to nature.
B. Contumely to God.
C. The subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

In fact, it’s not a multiple choice, all these are the correct answer.

He helpfully points out that “Woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.”

How much has changed since, and how much do you know about it? Try the quiz to find out. If you’d like some help finding the answers, try the following:

OECD work on Gender

Wikigender “a project initiated by the OECD Development Centre to facilitate the exchange and improve the knowledge on gender equality-related issues around the world.”

DAC network on gender equality “the only international forum where experts from development co-operation agencies meet to define common approaches in support of gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

Social Institutions and Network Index (SIGI) “first launched by the OECD Development Centre in 2009 as an innovative measure of the underlying drivers of gender inequality for over 100 countries. Instead of measuring gender gaps in outcomes such as employment and education, the SIGI instead captures discriminatory social institutions”

You’ll learn why the correct answer is correct if that’s the one you pick, but you may also learn something from an incorrect choice (other than it’s wrong).

Cinderella’s a girl, so why does she wear blue?

closing-the-gender-gapA friend has just bought glittery pink shoes for her sister’s children. Can you guess whether they’re boys or girls? Of course you can! Pink is for girls (and so is glittery). But that wasn’t always the case. In 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department (a magazine for retail professionals) explained that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

That’s why the Virgin Mary wears blue, as do Cinderella and Snow White in Disney’s 1950 and 1937 cartoons. On a far more sinister note, the Nazis made male homosexuals wear pink triangles, since the colour’s masculine connotations associated it with a preference for men. (Lesbians wore the black triangle of “asocials”, a group that included women who had had abortions and prostitutes).

You can find out more about when pink became girly in Jeanne Maglaty’s article for the Smithsonian. The point is, it happened recently and for reasons that are linked to commerce and other social behaviours, not genetics. Stereotyping, whether positive or negative, is insidious, helping to reinforce the idea that some kinds of discrimination and oppression are somehow “natural” – the mother not the father should stay at home to look after a sick child because women are better carers, for instance. Then if you have to choose between a man and a woman for a promotion you can say objectively that a man will be more available and take less time off.

Aaron Kay of Duke University and his colleagues have just published the results of an experimental study of how stereotypes influence judgement. They found that people exposed to positive stereotypes towards African Americans were more likely to apply negative stereotypes too, and to believe in biological explanations of group differences.

Combating stereotypes will involve “changing norms, culture, mindsets, and attitudes” as it says in the introduction to a session at today’s OECD Gender Forum on “Closing the gender gap”. The main theme of the conference is the economy, and the main argument is that discriminating against women is not only immoral, it’s a waste of money. Government ministers, business leaders and members of civil society will be talking about what they should do to “achieve gender equality in economic opportunities”.

The picture in the top left corner of this article is a good summary of the scale of the task. It’s the cover of the book being launched at today’s meeting and illustrates the fact that when you establish a dichotomy, you imply a hierarchy. Try it with some neutral-sounding pairs to begin with: above-below; written-spoken; inside-outside. Now have look at the book and frame what you see in terms of word couples. There are three adult males and three female children. The men are higher up. The one black person of the six is lower down. One of the men is either holding out a helping hand or warning the one girl actually doing anything that the ladder she’s using to bridge the gap is too short.

Most of the OECD recommendations on what to do are consensual (address cultural barriers, provide affordable, good-quality childcare for all parents…) but I imagine there’ll be a lively debate around others, including what some see as flagship reforms. For example, the Financial Times reported in September that many businesses and some governments oppose EU plans to have quotas of women directors on the boards of listed companies. Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI employers’ group, backed the UK government’s line, saying: “We are not convinced that EU quotas will be anything other than a token gesture.” Others argue that women at the top would act just the same as their male colleagues anyway and that for somebody losing their job, knowing there was a woman’s touch to getting fired isn’t any comfort.

In other words, the division between men and women is one of many in our society and any victory in the fight against sexual discrimination will only be partial if it’s achieved in isolation from efforts to overcome other forms of inequality.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative


Children and Young People: Reading less but enjoying it as much

Endangered species?

Today’s post is by Christina Clark, Head of Research of the UK National Literacy Trust, whose latest report Children’s and Young People’s Reading Today has just been published

Young people’s lives are busier than ever before, with many activities and interests vying for their time outside of school. What role does reading play in this crowded lifestyle? Findings from our latest annual literacy survey of 21,000 8 to 16-year olds in the UK, published this month in our report Children and Young People’s Reading Today, suggest that reading plays an increasingly lesser role in young people’s leisure time, for example the frequency with which young people read. We found that only 30.8% of young people said that they read daily in their own time in 2011 compared with 38.1% in 2005. Conversely, more than a fifth of children and young people (21.6%) rarely or never read in their own time in 2011, up from 15.4% in 2005.

While fewer young people now read daily, we intriguingly also found that the proportion of children and young people who enjoy reading very much or quite a lot has remained static since 2005 (50% today vs 51% in 2005). These findings together suggest a clear issue with children and young people’s leisure time, with many children and young people enjoying reading but pushing it out in favour of other activities.

It isn’t the case that young people have shifted their reading patterns from paper to digital formats as a comparison of reading choices in 2005 and 2011 showed that, with the exception of text messages, reading across all formats, including technology-based reading, has fallen. For example, 77% of children and young people read magazines in 2005 while now just 57% do; comic reading has dropped from 64% to 50%; and reading on websites from 64% to 50%.

In line with numerous other studies, we also found that girls are more likely than boys to make time for reading, with 35.3% of girls saying that they read outside of class every day compared with 26.3% of boys (issues surrounding boys’ reading in the UK today are discussed here). However, our surveys – in line with OECD PISA international comparison data – show that the gap between boys and girls in terms of their daily reading has widened in recent years. For example, in 2005, 35% of boys and 42% of girls said that they read daily outside of class. 

Not only are girls more likely than boys to read daily, they are also more likely to enjoy it than boys. Nearly twice as many girls as boys say that they enjoy reading very much (27.6% vs. 18.3%), with 56.7% of girls enjoying reading either very much or quite a lot compared with only 43.8% of boys. Conversely, nearly twice as many boys as girls say that they don’t enjoy reading at all (14.6% vs. 8.3%).

The gender gap in reading enjoyment is not just a UK phenomenon; instead, it is corroborated by numerous studies that all show that boys enjoy reading less than girls. For example, PISA showed that across OECD countries, just over half of 15-year-old boys (52%) said that they read for enjoyment compared with nearly three-quarters of girls (73%). However, the gender difference remains wider in 2011 than in 2005 (where the percentage point gap between boys and girls who enjoy reading either very much or quite a lot was 10.7). The PISA question is a combined reading enjoyment and reading frequency question, which might account for the different proportions of boys and girls who say that they enjoy reading compared with our survey.

Girls and boys also read different materials outside of class. More girls than boys say that they not only read technology-based formats, such as text messages, messages on social networking sites, emails and instant messages, but also that they read more “traditional” texts, such as fiction and poems as well as magazines and lyrics. By contrast, more boys than girls say that they read non-fiction, newspapers, comics and manuals. Girls’ penchant for technology-based materials is not simply explained by girls having greater access to computers or the internet than boys. Our survey also showed that roughly the same proportion of boys and girls say that they either own a computer (boys 72.1%; girls 74.0%), have access to one (boys 96.4%; girls 97.0%) or have the internet at home (boys 96.3%; girls 96.3%).

One other area that we would like to highlight here relates to ethnic background. We compared data on broad ethnic groups and found that the relationships between reading and ethnic background are complex. For example, young people from White backgrounds enjoy reading considerably less (White 49.4%; Mixed race 56.8%; Asian/Asian British 58.2%; Black/Black British 60.7%), and read daily less often (White 30.7%; Mixed race 34.2%; Asian/Asian British 32.6%; Black/Black British 38.3%). They are also less likely to agree that reading is “cool” (White 31.9%; Mixed race 37.7%; Asian/Asian British 44.1%; Black/Black British 47.4%). They are more likely to agree that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them read (White 17.7%; Mixed race 15.6%; Asian/Asian British 13%; Black/Black British 12.3%). Young people from White backgrounds are also more likely to agree that they prefer watching TV to reading (White 54.5%; Mixed race 50.3%; Asian/Asian British 46.8%; Black/Black British 50.7%).

We believe it is essential to make the time for children and young people to read as the research also shows a clear link between reading outside of class and their achievement. It found that young people who read outside of class daily were 13 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age.

We hope this research will increase interest in children’s and young people’s reading habits and encourage government, families and those working with children and young people to help make reading part of a young person’s daily activities. To find out more about our research and the activities we undertake to address literacy issues in the UK and how you could become involved, see our website 

Useful links

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA – Let’s Read Them a Story! The Parent Factor in Education

The American Library in Paris is organising a discussion on 25 September at 19:30 with the author of Let’s Read Them a Story, Francesca Borgonovi, and Peter Gumbel, author of On achève bien les ecoliers, to learn more about the book and what you can concretely do to help your children in school and beyond.

Tackling gender differences in financial literacy

Today’s post is contributed by Chiara Monticone and Flore-Anne Messy of the OECD’s Financial Affairs Division

International Women’s Day traditionally attracts media attention to differences between men and women, such as the number of women on company boards, income gaps, and so on. However, awareness of gender differences in financial literacy and of their potential implications has remained quite low even though policy makers now recognise financial literacy as an essential life-skill, and financial education has become an important policy priority as a complement to financial consumer protection, inclusion and prudential regulation. The G20 Mexican Presidency for example has called on the OECD to develop High Level Principles on National Strategy for Financial Education that are expected to be approved by G20 leaders in June 2012.

A new working paper from the OECD’s Financial Affairs Division, Empowering Women through Financial Awareness and Education, reveals that women perform worse than men on tests of financial knowledge on average. For instance, in the US, while 60-70% of men can correctly answer questions about calculating interest or about inflation and risk diversification, only 50-60% of women can do so.

Moreover, women tend to be less confident about their financial skills than men in several domains. For instance, a study conducted in Australia reveals that women are generally as confident as men in their ability with everyday money management, including budgeting, saving, dealing with credit and managing debt, but that they are less confident than men when it comes to more complex issues like investing, understanding financial language and planning for retirement.

Evidence on vulnerable sub-populations suggests that women at either end of the age spectrum, low-income women, and widows may be more vulnerable to the negative consequences of low levels of financial literacy than other women, or men in the same subgroups.

This is worrying because lower levels of financial literacy can reduce women’s active participation within the economy, as well as effective personal and household financial management. Greater financial literacy could enable women to be better equipped to access and choose appropriate financial services , as well as to develop and manage entrepreneurial activities. Moreover, as women tend both to live longer and earn less than men, they are more likely to face poverty or financial hardship later in life.

All this is amplified by the fact that public policies in many countries have shifted a range of financial risks and related decisions to individual consumers. In addition, women’s lower financial literacy can reduce  their economic power within the household, and the transmission of knowledge to the next generation.

A survey of authorities in developed and emerging economies reveals that some of them – including Australia, India, Lebanon, New Zealand, Poland, Turkey, the UK and the US – acknowledge the need to address the financial literacy of women and girls, and have implemented financial education programmes targeting them.

However, there is scope for improvement. Gender differences in financial literacy and behaviour  should be explored further, to gain a deeper understanding of the specific aspects of financial literacy that might negatively affect the financial wellbeing of women, and design better targeted policy interventions. For instance, more needs to be learnt about why women’s levels of financial literacy are lower than men’s.

The OECD International Network on Financial Education (INFE) is working to address these issues by collecting and analysing internationally comparable data using the OECD/INFE Financial Literacy Core Questionnaire for adults and the 2012 PISA Financial Literacy international option for 15 year olds; identifying and comparing  effective financial education programmes; and  developing high-level policy analysis.

Useful links

OECD work on financial education

OECD work on gender

International Gateway for Financial Education (IGFE)


Wikigender turns three years old today

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, Estelle Loiseau from the OECD Development Centre describes the OECD’s Wikigender project.

Today, Wikigender celebrates its third birthday. Launched on International Women’s Day by the OECD Development Centre three years ago, this web 2.0 knowledge sharing platform focusing on gender equality issues has become a global reference point.

Originally set up to bring the debate on gender equality closer to individuals by fostering opportunities for data sharing on measures of gender equality, Wikigender has now become a lively virtual space where academics, gender experts, policy makers, statisticians, economists, development practitioners and students can actively participate and contribute to the platform on a variety of gender equality issues. (more…)