The New Gender Divide in Education

03/05/2015 02:15 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
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Measured in the most common metric -- average years of schooling -- the industrialized world essentially closed the gender gap in education in the 1960s. And that has made a huge difference: about half of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years has been due to increased educational attainment, and mainly among women. But women still earn 15 percent less than men, on average in OECD countries, and 20 percent less among workers at the top of the pay scale. Some people are quick to say that this is about men and women doing similar work for different pay, but another factor is that men and women pursue different careers. And as our new report "The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence" suggests, those career choices may be made much earlier than commonly thought.

The report finds that, even though boys and girls show similar performance on the PISA science test, on average across OECD countries, less than 5 percent of 15-year-old girls contemplate pursuing a career in engineering or computing, while 20 percent of boys do (it's almost exactly the other way round when it comes to health services). Gender differences in self-confidence in science explain part of this gap. So while many countries can claim victory in having closed gender gaps in the knowledge and skills of boys and girls, we may have lost sight of important social and emotional dimensions of learning that may be far more predictive for the future life choices of children. In most countries, teachers and schools need to do better to help girls see science and math not just as school subjects, but as essential to open up career and life opportunities. This is significant not only because women are severely under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields of study and occupations, but also because graduates of these fields are in high demand in the labour market and because jobs in these fields are among the most highly paid.

Studying longer does not automatically mean that a student has acquired better and more relevant skills. Indeed, the PISA assessments show that what boys and girls know and what they can do with what they know varies greatly among students of the same age and who have attended school for the same number of years. The assessments also show that gender differences in student performance vary widely across countries and across subjects. Everywhere, girls do better than boys in reading, boys do better than girls in mathematics in about half of the countries, and boys and girls perform equally well in science.

But what is most striking is that six out of ten low achievers in all three of the subjects that PISA assesses -- reading, mathematics and science -- are boys. These low achievers seem to be stuck in vicious cycle of low performance, disengagement and low motivation. But in math and science, boys are also more prevalent among the top performers, where girls often miss out. And while we've known for a while that even the highest-performing girls are less confident in their abilities in mathematics and science than high-performing boys, our new study suggests that they don't seem to be getting much encouragement from their parents. In all countries and economies surveyed on this question, parents were 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. Some 50 percent of parents in Chile, Hungary and Portugal expect their sons to have a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, but less than 20 percent hold such expectations for their daughters. And do you remember the Barbie doll saying 'math is hard'? It was a women, not a man. Interestingly, in Korea that gap is just 7 percentage points, so we can do better.

The good news from the report is that narrowing these gender gaps does not require extensive -- and expensive -- education reform. Rather, it requires concerted efforts by parents, teachers and employers to become more aware of their own conscious or unconscious gender biases so that they give girls and boys equal chances for success at school and beyond.

For example, PISA shows clearly that boys and girls have different reading preferences: girls are far more likely than boys to read novels and magazines for enjoyment while boys prefer comic books and newspapers. If parents and teachers gave boys a greater choice in what they read, they might be more successful in at least narrowing the wide gender gap in reading performance.

PISA also finds that boys spend more time playing video games and less time doing homework than girls. While excessive video gaming is shown to be a drag on student performance, new analysis shows that a moderate amount of video gaming is related to boys' better performance in digital reading than in print reading (although boys still lag behind girls in both types of reading). All of us who have children around the age of 15 know how difficult it is to have a say in how our children spend their free time. But all parents should be aware that if they do not convince their children that completing their homework comes before playing video games, they will significantly hurt their children's career and life chances.

Teachers can help both boys and girls to improve their mathematics performance. PISA finds that when teachers help students to learn from mistakes they have made, ask students to explain how they solved a mathematics problem, and require students to apply what they have learned in new contexts, among other teaching strategies that require students to work more independently, all students, but particularly girls, perform better in mathematics.

One of the most disturbing new findings is that teachers consistently give girls better marks in mathematics than boys, even when boys and girls perform similarly on the PISA mathematics test. That may be because girls are "good students" -- attentive in class and respectful of authority -- while boys tend to exert less self-control in their behaviour when they are in class. But while higher marks may lead to success at school, they aren't necessarily an advantage for girls in the long run, because labour markets reward people for what they know and what they can do with what they know, not for their grades at school.

Employers have an important role to play too. While PISA shows that girls are more likely than boys to get information about future studies or careers through Internet research, boys are more likely than girls to get hands-on experience, by working as interns, job shadowing, visiting a job fair or speaking to career advisors outside school. This implies that employers can do far more to engage girls in learning about potential careers.

And in what may be a surprising finding, the large gender gap in reading performance observed among 15-year-olds virtually disappears among 16-29 year-olds. The data show that young men are much more likely than young women to read at work -- and at home. This again suggests that there are plenty of ways to narrow or even eliminate gender gaps in education and skills, as long as learning becomes everyone's business.