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Why do gender gaps in education and work persist?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published an article on Why do gender gaps in education and work persist? The article draws on the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a triennial survey of 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

The findings can be linked with the recently published report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) on The impact of undergraduate degrees on lifetime earnings.

Participation in higher education

In most countries the proportion of tertiary-educated females is now greater than the proportion of tertiary-educated males. Across OECD countries on average 40% of 25-64 year-old females have a tertiary degree, compared to 34% of males. Since 2008, participation by women has grown 10 percentage points compared to 7 percentage points for males.

The findings of the PISA survey 2018

The PISA survey 2018 found that girls outperformed boys at school. The gap was 30 points in reading. In mathematics where boys have traditionally outperformed girls the gap had narrowed to only 5 points. Although not statistically significant, in many countries girls outperformed boys in science.

The survey findings for the United Kingdom (UK)

The PISA results for the UK found a narrower gap in favour of girls in reading (20 score points), and boys scoring less than girls in mathematics. Performance in science was similar for both genders.

Gender gaps in the labour market

Despite their level of academic performance and growing level of participation in higher education, “gender gaps in the labour market remain as wide as ever”.

The OECD believe gaps in the labour market can be traced back to secondary school. Even when they outperform boys academically, girls are less likely to choose “pathways and fields of study that lead to the highest-paid professions”.

Gender differences in attitude to competition and failure

In Do boys and girls have a similar attitudes to competition and failure?, the OECD suggests “in almost all PISA-participating countries and economies, girls reported more often than boys, and to a greater extent, that they fear failure”.

For the UK “more than three in four girls reported that failure makes them doubt their plans for the future, while fewer than one in four boys reported so”. This suggests “excessive fear may result in lower ambitions and a preference for pursuing more secure, but less rewarding ventures”.

Girls also had a less positive attitude to competition than boys. The gender gap was particularly wide in some countries, including the UK. In other countries the gender gap was inverted, suggesting “that gender gaps in attitudes to competition are not preordained.”

Subject choice at university

OECD notes that “women are far more likely than men to study subjects related to education, and health and welfare, while men are more likely to choose the broad fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)”. In 2017 on average across OECD countries, only 30% of new entrants to bachelor STEM programmes were women.

The impact of undergraduate degrees on lifetime earnings

The IFS finds, men’s projected average increase in lifetime returns (£240k) from an undergraduate degree exceed those of women (£130k). When compared with women, there is also wider range in the returns by subject studied for men. The impact of attending different types of university is also “less stark” for women than men. However, “for subjects such as education and nursing, while the average return is low, nearly all women studying those subjects do receive a positive return.”

Cognitive skills development between adolescence and early adulthood

Drawing on data collected by The Survey of Adult Skills, the OECD considers Do gender gaps in reading and mathematics evolve between childhood and adulthood?

The findings suggest that “girls’ advantage over boys in reading performance peaks during adolescence, but then disappears by early adulthood.” While, “boys’ advantage in mathematics performance increases steadily from age 9 to 27”. As a consequence, boys are more likely to pursue higher education and careers involving greater use of mathematical skills. Further, its suggests that reading is a transversal skill (ie. not related to a specific task) and can be mastered outside of formal education. As a result, men are able to catch-up with girls in terms of reading proficiency.

The OECD acknowledge although they offer a plausible explanation for the way gender gaps in reading and mathematics evolve over time, “more research is needed to identify the roots of the gender gaps in literacy and numeracy, and reasons why these gender gaps wider or narrow over time”.


The analysis suggests key actions particularly for those subjects where there is currently a gender imbalance. These include early interventions to:

  • raise the relative self-confidence of girls
  • help shape students’ perceptions of their own strengths
  • avoiding conscious or unconscious biases in subject selection at school.

The OECD’s findings highlight the importance of cultural and behavioural factors, and the need for higher education providers to work closely with schools and other influencers to change perceptions at an early age.

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