The fork in the road towards gender equality

by Simon Normandeau
Statistician, Directorate for Education and Skills


Gender biases can be persistent. Too persistent. A simple exercise to illustrate the point: Picture a doctor or a professor. You will most likely think of a man. Now think of nurses and teachers and you are likely to imagine a woman. This unconscious gender bias is rooted in years of associating male and female attributes to specific roles in society. Inevitably, it also influences students’ career choices.

Gender differences in career aspirations are set early on. Children tend to mimic the social environment in which they grew up: boys are more drawn towards male-dominated fields while girls aspire to careers held by inspirational role models of their own gender. By the age of 15, boys and girls have already been regularly exposed to one of the most strongly gender-biased professions: teaching. On average across OECD countries, 83% of primary teachers are women; and this proportion shows no sign of shrinking anytime soon. 

Careers in science show the opposite trend. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that even if boys and girls have similar scores in science, girls are less likely than boys to envision themselves in a science-related career when they are 30. This demonstrates that aspirations to pursue a career in science are not necessarily determined by students’ aptitude in these fields.

Data on fields of study released in Education at a Glance 2017 and analysed in a new Education Indicators in Focus confirm that the gender disparities observed in career aspirations in the PISA study are alive and well in tertiary education too. Three out of four students entering the field of education are women; but only one out of four entering the field of engineering, manufacturing and construction is female. Moreover, the share of women entering a programme in engineering, manufacturing and construction is even smaller than the share of 15-year-old girls who aspire to work in science and engineering, showing the effect of social norms over just a few years, and their impact on all-important career decisions. 

From school to university, gender disparities then spill over into the labour market. The figure above shows that the field of study a young woman selects has consequences for her employment after graduation. Women who graduated from health and welfare and education programmes are more likely to be employed than women who graduated from male-dominated programmes, such as engineering, manufacture and construction. But the figure also shows that no matter which field of study they choose, women are always less likely than men to be employed – and the widest gender gaps are found among graduates from science-related fields.

Gender disparities accumulate throughout life. Thus, ensuring equal opportunities to girls and boys to pursue the field of study of their choice, regardless of stereotypes and societal gender imbalances, is a critical step towards more equity in the labour market. Gender diversity in professions also creates value by encouraging a variety of thought and opinion in the workplace. Studies have shown that gender diversity in companies brings higher financial returns, a better reputation and improved internal communication. 

Gender diversity is at the heart of Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. While some progress has already been made, gender equality is still a target to be reached, and gender bias, whether conscious or unconscious, still a barrier to be dismantled. Education systems have a role to play in promoting and valuing the success of girls in different career paths, to encourage them to pursue their studies in fields that are increasingly valued in the labour market – and currently dominated by men. 

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