Do men’s and women’s choices of field of study explain why women earn less than men?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Fields of education are ranked in descending order of the share of men who studied in this specific field.

Although we’ve observed for a long time that young men and women tend to choose different fields of study – young men are more apt than young women to pursue a degree in engineering while more women than men opt for a teaching career, for example – until recently, we have had no reliable data to support this perception. Nor could we measure the impact of these choices on employment and earnings. But recent data collections, such as the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), finally offer some quantitative evidence on these crucial issues.

The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief summarises the available evidence from the Survey of Adult Skills on gender differences across fields of study. The data are mind-blowing. As shown in the figure above, across the countries and subnational entities with available data, only 7% of women had studied engineering, manufacturing and construction, compared to 31% of men. In contrast, the share of women who had graduated from a teacher-training and education-science programme or from a health and welfare programme is more than double that of men. These are averages, and differences among countries in the magnitude of the gender gaps between fields of study are also large.

Why women and men choose to pursue different fields of study, and why those choices vary among countries, is not easy to determine. Gender stereotyping of jobs and occupations, which often result in different career expectations for girls and boys, and gendered roles in personal and professional life all influence the decisions that lead to gender-related differences in the choice of studies and careers. But whatever the causes may be, the consequences are clear. As discussed in the Education in Focus brief, employment patterns differ between fields of study, depending on the gender imbalance. Because of higher rates of inactivity among women, the employment rates of graduates from the field of teacher training and education, which is mainly chosen by women, tend to be lower than that for more male-dominated fields of study. Indeed, for all fields of study, the employment rate among men is significantly higher than that among women.

Obviously, this has an impact on men’s and women’s earnings. Some fields of study lead to higher wages than others; these are usually male-dominated fields. Inactivity and employment patterns also add to gender gaps in earnings. But how important are the differences in men’s and women’s choices of field of study in explaining overall gender inequality in, for example, earnings?

The gender gap in earnings can be attributed to average earnings differences between fields of study and different rates of participation in the labour market and in employment; but it is also related to the gender-stereotyped  profiles of occupations and career developments within each field.

To assess the latter, it is interesting to look at earnings differences between men and women in a specific field of study, preferably one where gender differences in graduation are not too large, such as in social sciences, business and law. Some 27% of all 25-64 year-old respondents in the Survey of Adult Skills had graduated from this field, with a difference of only a few percentage points between men and women. On average across OECD countries and subnational entities surveyed, women working in this field earn only 75% of what men earn. In Chile and Japan, women who graduated from social sciences, business and law earn less than 60% of what men in the same field earn.

Gender-related differences in labour-force participation or in salary schemes are certainly not the main reasons for these earnings disparities: even in a region with high female participation in the labour force and legislated gender equality in labour conditions and salary, such as Flanders (Belgium), women still earn more than 25% less than what men working in the same field earn.

Tackling gender inequalities in employment and income will require the dismantling of gender stereotypes of fields of study and occupations. Getting more young women into the field of engineering and more young men into teacher training would be an excellent first step. But we also need to remove the glass ceilings and the explicit and implicit discriminations in the labour market and the professions that prevent women from occupying more senior positions within specific fields. As is evident in this year’s edition of Education at a Glance, even within a largely female-dominated field such as education, school principals still are predominantly men. It’s about time that we remove all the obstacles that prevent half of the world’s population from allowing their skills and talents to flourish unimpeded.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 45: Fields of education, gender and the labour market, by Gara Rojas González, Simon Normandeau and Rie Fujisawa.
Indicateurs de l'Éducation à La Loupe No. 45: Domaines d’études et marché du travail: où en sont les hommes et les femmes ?
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)

Chart source: OECD, (2012, 2015) Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC),


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