Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Literacy for life

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Literacy proficiency among 16-65 year-olds:
Percentage of adults at each proficiency level in literacy
As jobs increasingly involve analysing and communicating information, individuals with poor literacy skills are more likely to find themselves at risk. Poor proficiency in these skills limits adults’ access to many basic services, to better-paying and more-rewarding jobs, and to the possibility of participating in further education and training, which is crucial for developing and maintaining skills over the working life and beyond.

On this Leaders for Literacy Day, I want to share some findings from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills. The survey finds, for example, that the median hourly wage of workers scoring at the highest levels in literacy (Level 4 or 5 in the survey) – those who can make complex inferences and evaluate subtle truth claims or arguments in written texts – is more than 60% higher than for workers scoring at Level 1 or below – those who can, at best, read relatively short texts to locate a single piece of information that is identical to the information given in the question or directive or to understand basic vocabulary. In addition, people with poor literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.

But the impact of literacy proficiency goes far beyond earnings and employment. In all countries that participated in the 2012 survey, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities. In most countries, they are also less likely to trust others. For example, on average across countries, individuals who perform at Level 1 in literacy are twice as likely to report low levels of trust as individuals who score at Level 4 or 5, even after accounting for their education and social background. Without trust in governments, public institutions and well-regulated markets, public support for ambitious and innovative policies is difficult to mobilise, particularly where short-term sacrifices are involved and where long-term benefits are not immediately evident.

While the evidence on the benefits of high proficiency in literacy is clear, the path towards ensuring that every individual attains at least a basic level of literacy is less so. The latest OECD PISA results show that, across OECD countries, a worrying large proportion of 15-year-old students – 18% -- have not yet attained the baseline level of proficiency as measured by PISA, meaning that they have not yet acquired the reading skills that will enable them to participate fully and productively in society.

What can we do to promote better literacy skills for all

•    Provide high-quality initial education and lifelong learning opportunities.

The impressive progress that some countries, such as Korea, have made in improving the skills of their population over successive generations shows what can be achieved. These countries have established systems that combine high-quality initial education with opportunities and incentives for the entire population to continue to develop proficiency in reading and numeracy skills, whether outside work or at the workplace, after initial education and training are completed

•    Make sure all children have a strong start in education.

PISA results show that investing in high-quality early childhood education and initial schooling, particularly for children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, can help to ensure that all children start strong and become effective learners.

•    Allow workers to adapt their learning to their lives

Programmes to enhance adult literacy need to be relevant to users and flexible enough, both in content and in how they are delivered (part-time, flexible hours, convenient location), to adapt to adults’ needs. Distance learning and open educational resources also allow users to adapt their learning to their lives

•    Identify those most at risk of poor literacy proficiency.

The most disadvantaged adults need to be not only offered, but also encouraged, to improve their proficiency. This means identifying low-skilled adults who require support, particularly foreign-language immigrants, older adults and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and providing them with learning opportunities tailored to their needs. This is likely to require innovative approaches and significant community engagement.

•    Show how adults can benefit from better skills.

More adults will be tempted to invest in education and training if the benefits of improving their skills are made apparent to them. For example, governments can provide better information about the economic benefits, including wages net of taxes, employment and productivity, and non-economic benefits, including self-esteem and increased social interaction, of adult learning.

•    Provide easy-to-find information about adult education activities.

Less-educated individuals tend to be less aware of education and training opportunities, and may find the available information confusing. A combination of easily searchable, up-to-date online information and personal guidance and counselling services to help individuals define their own training needs and identify the appropriate programmes has often made a real difference.

Results from the Survey of Adult Skills underscore the need to move from a reliance on initial education towards fostering lifelong learning. Seeing literacy as a tool to be honed over an individual’s lifetime will also help countries to better balance the allocation of resources to maximise both economic and social outcomes.

Follow the digital dialogue: How can WE better advance literacy for all and make this the #AgeOfLiteracy?

Leaders for Literacy Day
Survey of Adult Skills
PISA 2012 Key Findings
PISA in Focus No. 1: Does participation in pre-primary education translate into better learning outcomes at school?
PISA in Focus No. 40: Does pre-primary education reach those who need it most?
Chart Source: © OECD Skilled for Life: Key Findings from the Survey of Adult Skills

A mini-milestone for PISA in Focus

by Marilyn Achiron 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

It seems like only yesterday…but it was, in fact, 50 months ago that we started our PISA in Focus series. Over these past four years we’ve mined PISA 2009 and PISA 2012 results to highlight some of the most important findings and stories from the triennial international survey of 15-year-old students – from the importance of early childhood education to the effect of family background on students’ education to whether or not doing homework is really beneficial (in general, PISA finds that yes, it really is…).

This month, PISA in Focus examines the impact of good teacher-student relations on both students’ well-being and performance. It’s not surprising that when students feel that their teachers are interested in them and support them they feel happier at school and often do better in school. What is surprising is that in several OECD countries, fewer than 60% of students attend schools whose principal reported that mathematics teachers in their schools believe that the social and emotional development of their students is as valued as the acquisition of mathematics skills. While long-term studies suggest that students’ results on the PISA test are correlated with how well they will do later on in life, good performance in standardised assessments like PISA can explain only so much. Success and well-being in life also depend on how well individuals have developed socially and emotionally, particularly throughout their crucial school years.

At this mini-milestone in our history, we’d like to thank you for your continued interest in PISA. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing more findings from PISA 2012 – even as we look ahead to December 2016, when PISA 2015 results will be announced and a new volume of stories will be open for the telling.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No.50: Do teacher-student relations affect students' well-being at school?
Full Set of PISA in Focus

Photo credit: © OECD

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Gender equality in education

by Tracey Burns
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills 

To mark International Women’s Day the OECD released an impressive new analysis on gender and education. Using PISA 2012 data, the report looked at where gender equality still eludes us: boys do less well in reading while girls are less likely to imagine a career in science and technology, even when they are top achievers in those subjects.

What are some of the other ways in which gender is important in education? A just released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight starts with the obvious: The vast majority of teachers are female across the OECD. This is most marked in pre-primary and primary education, where approximately 8 out of 10 teachers are women. In secondary education, 68% of lower secondary teachers in TALIS countries are female, and in countries like Estonia and the Slovak Republic, more than 80% of teachers are women.
Is this important? Among journalists and policy-makers, there is a penchant to connect the lower performance of boys (particularly in reading) to the fact that most teachers are female. However, while the argument is intuitive, research evidence does not suggest that simply bringing men into the teaching profession would improve boys’ achievement, as measured by test results. 
Aiming for a better balance of men and women among teachers can nevertheless have positive effects. Male teachers can serve as role models, particularly for those students who do not have many positive male influences in their lives. Some countries are actively seeking to increase the numbers of male teachers. In the UK for example, the Training and Development Agency (TDA) has developed a campaign aimed specifically at recruiting men into the profession, which emphasises the rewarding nature of teaching and provides taster courses for male applicants in primary schools. 
There is another way in which gender plays a role in education: While teaching is a predominantly female profession, school leaders are still more likely to be men in many countries. For example, 68% of Korean teachers are female whereas only 13% of Korean principals are women. In Finland and Portugal, 7 out of 10 teachers are women but only about 4 out of 10 principals are. On the other hand, in Norway, 61% of teachers and 58% of principals are women, and in Poland, the gender imbalance is below 10%. 

Why are women not found in the position of school leader more often, given that they make up the majority of the teaching force? Many factors determine the number of female principals in a country. The education and skill level of candidates, individual willingness to take up the role of principal, the number of female applicants, as well as gender-bias in perceptions of leadership ability play an important role. Encouraging more female leaders requires systemic efforts that go beyond the individual hiring process.   

This is important: Gender segregation in career choice results in talent loss for the individual as well as for society in all fields, not just education. Recent research suggests that gender-diverse business teams have greater success in terms of sales and profits than male dominated teams. And a report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) argues that the gender gap in the labour market accounts for up to 27% of lost GDP per capita. Raising the female labour market participation to male levels could raise GDP in the US by 5%, in Japan by 9% and in Egypt by as much as 34%. 

Yet old stereotypes die hard. Perceptions of what counts as “masculine” and “feminine” vocations are formed early in life and are strongly influenced by traditional perceptions of gender roles. Women still struggle to reach top leadership positions, and are less likely to become entrepreneurs. Men are far less likely to become teachers and join other “caring” professions, such as nursing. 

So what can be done? The Scottish government has made efforts to reduce gender based occupational segregation with its “Be what you want” campaign. The campaign specifically targets 11-14 year old students in Scottish schools and tries to support the aspirations of young people by highlighting the barriers that boys and girls face when trying to enter “non-traditional” areas of work. A number of other countries are launching similar initiatives. 

These kinds of small steps could be important. Gender equality does not mean that men and women should become the same, but rather that a person’s opportunities should not depend on whether they are born female or male. Education can, and should, play a role in shaping attitudes and transforming behaviours to improve gender equity. A world with more female computer scientists as well as more male teachers and healthcare workers? Sounds good to me.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
OECD Gender Portal
The ABC of Gender Equality in Education
The Business Benefits of Gender Diversity
Trends Shaping Education 2015 Spotlight 7
Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries
Women, Work, and the Economy: Macroeconomic Gains from Gender Equity
Photo Credit: Male Teacher Playing Guitar With Pupils Having Music Lesson in Classroom/ @Shutterstock

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Skills will drive inclusive economic growth in Portugal

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

Skills and human capital are the bedrock upon which Portugal is building a new bridge to growth.

Portugal is recovering from the most serious economic and financial crisis the country has experienced in recent history. The reform agenda over the past few years has been ambitious, comprehensive and challenging.

Awareness is now growing among policy makers, employers and households that Portugal’s future economic and social well-being will depend upon securing equitable and high-quality education and jobs while promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Portugal is on the road to recovery

Signs of Portugal’s recovery can be seen across the board. Youth unemployment and long-term joblessness rates are falling, even if levels remain too high. Job creation is picking up, and the majority of new jobs created in 2014 were on permanent contracts, which is a good indication that Portugal’s longstanding labour market dualism has been reduced by recent reforms. Educational attainment levels and learning outcomes are rising steadily, as reflected in Portugal’s PISA scores which now approach the OECD average. Measures have been introduced to stimulate entrepreneurship, and in 2014 Lisbon was selected as one of the European Entrepreneurial Regions (EER), in recognition of its strategies to promote entrepreneurship and spread innovation among small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Building a shared diagnosis of Portugal’s skills challenges 

We know that in countries where a significant proportion of adults have poor skills, it is difficult to introduce productivity-enhancing technologies and new ways of working. This, in turn, stalls innovation and improvements in living standards.

Yet skills affect more than just earnings and employment. Data from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) show that in all countries, adults with lower literacy proficiency are far more likely than those with better literacy skills to report poor health, to perceive themselves as objects rather than actors in political processes, and to have less trust in others.

Put simply, a lack of proficiency in foundation skills prevents people from fully participating in society and democracy.

In the course of 2014, we have worked closely with Portugal on a collaborative project to build a more effective skills strategy. Throughout this initial diagnostic phase, we have witnessed strong commitment to improving Portugal’s skills outcomes across central and local governments, employers and trade unions, as well as education and training providers.

Today, the results of this work are published as the OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Portugal. The Prime Minister of Portugal, Mr Pedro Passos Coelho, will be officially launching the report in Lisbon together with the OECD Secretary-General, Mr Ángel Gurría. This is a strong signal of the importance afforded to skills policies in Portugal.

Portugal’s 12 skills challenges

The diagnostic report applies the framework of the OECD Skills Strategy to identify 12 skills challenges for Portugal as it seeks to maximise its future skills potential. These skills challenges were distilled from a series of four interactive workshops held in Lisbon and Porto in 2014, which engaged a wide range of stakeholders. The report includes a rich set of evidence from OECD and other sources, and offers concrete examples of how other countries are tackling similar skills challenges.

So what are the main skills challenges facing Portugal today?

With regard to developing relevant skills, the report concludes that Portugal should focus its efforts on:
- Improving equity and quality in education
- Strengthening the responsiveness of VET to labour market demands
- Targeting adult education and lifelong learning towards the low-skilled

When it comes to activating its skills supply, Portugal will need to tackle the challenges of:
- Reducing youth unemployment and NEETs
- Increasing labour market re-entry for the long-term unemployed
- Reducing barriers to employment

Furthermore, Portugal could make more effective use of the skills it has by: 
- Promoting entrepreneurship
- Stimulating innovation and creating high-skilled jobs
- Providing employers with incentives to engage in skills development, especially SMEs

Finally, Portugal could improve the overall governance of the skills system by: 
- Financing a more equitable and efficient skills system
- Adjusting decision-making power to meet local needs
- Building capacity and partnerships for evidence-based skills policy

Moving from diagnosis to action 

Taken individually, these challenges may not be new or surprising to the people of Portugal. Yet by laying them out side by side, the need for a more systemic approach to skills policies emerges clearly.

As the diagnostic report demonstrates, skills policies are not just a matter for one ministry. Tackling skills challenges requires a whole of government approach. Moreover, skills are everybody’s business. Stakeholders and civil society need to play an active role in developing and implementing skills policies that are sustainable over the long term. 

By bringing together stakeholders, ministries and agencies to map out Portugal’s skills challenges, this project has built shared insights and deeper mutual understanding. The next step for Portugal will be to decide which challenges should be tackled as a priority and to develop concrete plans for action. This will mean building on the many reforms already underway and the continued engagement of all skills stakeholders.

Skills and human capital are the bridge to a more inclusive and prosperous future for the people of Portugal. The OECD stands ready to support Portugal as it designs and implements better skills policies for better jobs and better lives.

Photo credit: The 25 de Abril bridge over Tagus river and big Christ monument in Lisbon at sunset, Portugal/ @Shutterstock 

Related blog posts on skills:

Monday, March 30, 2015

PISA for Development

by Erik Solheim
Chair of the Development Assistance Committee, Development Co-operation Directorate

PISA for Development, launched on the 27th of March 2015 in Guatemala, provides an opportunity to improve the quality of education in Guatemala and throughout the developing world. Participation in PISA will help Guatemala benchmark its educational system and support the government efforts to improve education at all levels, particularly for the most disadvantaged and the large indigenous population of the country. PISA for Development also aims to identify ways to better measure, benchmark and improve education in developing countries.

Extreme poverty has been halved in two decades, and the world is now richer, better educated and more peaceful than at any other point in human history. More than 9 out of 10 children, and almost as many girls as boys, now go to school. Guatemala has made great strides in the last few years. Participation in primary education increased from 86% in 2001 to 93% in 2011, above the world average. But we must get to 10 and make sure that children learn more.

Enrolling all children, keeping them in school and providing a good education is essential for development. The education a country has today is the economy it will have tomorrow. All the great success stories in recent times have put education at the core of development. South Korea went from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, by focusing on education and industrialisation. Young Koreans are now 390 times richer than their grandparents were. Korean 15-year olds perform better in school than any other OECD nations.

Leadership is important. The founder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, emphasised the importance of education during his entire life, and the results are now visible. In Guatemala, Minister of Education del Aguila has been a champion for PISA and education reform. A former teacher, Minister del Aguila combines real experience in education with political leadership.

Huge strides have been made in securing basic education for all. Nevertheless, children are not learning enough at school. Too many students still drop out before high school or university. Shortage of skilled labour is a big problem in many developing countries. The quality of education will be a central aspect of the new United Nations sustainable development goals, which will be agreed upon later this year. The OECD has launched PISA for Development as a contribution to improve the quality of education all over the globe. Since 1997, PISA has been the leading reference on the quality of education systems worldwide. The “PISA-shock”, or the understanding that you have a lot to learn from others, has inspired many countries to reconsider policies and improve their education systems. Now the time has come to take this success to a global level and work towards better quality education for all.

The OECD has partnered with Zambia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Cambodia, Senegal and Guatemala to identify how PISA can better measure the quality of education in developing countries. The PISA test instruments will need to be adjusted to account for bigger differences between the highest and lowest performing students. New methods must be tested to evaluate students that are not attending formal schooling. We hope that these efforts will enable more countries to use PISA to set national learning policies and monitor progress.

Monitoring and evaluation is crucial for improving education. PISA is a powerful tool because it gives countries an honest assessment of whether their students are on the right track. Brazil has done more than any other PISA participant to improve its education system. Brazil was on the bottom of the ranking when it first participated in 2000. Then Brazil used PISA to prioritise policies and do focus more on what policies work better. Brazil improved the quality of its education system faster than any other nation over the next 10 years. The Bolsa Familia program, which provided cash remuneration to low-income families in exchange for enrolling children in school also contributed to improved education for the poorest children most likely to be out of school.

PISA opens up opportunities to allow us to learn from the best. Chinese and other East Asian students are the best performers in mathematics and science, and reading. The seven top spots on the PISA ranking are occupied by Asian countries and cities. There must be many things we can learn from Asian success stories, whether the secret is aspiring students, good teachers or better public policies. Guatemala and Peru is paired as part of a mentoring mechanism to provide peer-to-peer technical advice and learn from each other. Identifying policies that work and implementing these on a global scale is key for improving the quality of education.

Good policies are much more important than money.  Fifteen year old students in poor Vietnam are doing better than the average student in much richer countries. Only about 6% of performance differences in PISA test are explained by national income. Money is best used to underpin good policies.

Quality education is the way to development and poverty reduction. Monitoring progress, learning from success stories and implementing the best policies is the way to improve quality of education. Let the children learn!

PISA in Development
PISA 2012 Key Findings
Photo credit: © Roberto Franco Arias/Pedro Molina

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Education will fortify Indonesia’s future

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, Directorate for Education and Skills

In a crowded and scorching school yard, little Jabal, whose bony arms protrude from his yellow t-shirt, sits by himself.  Nearby, in a cloud of sand dust, his classmates are laughing and running around playing football. Teacher is late again today and Jabal looks downhearted.  When asked “what’s-up?” he slowly explains that he is worried. “Why?”

Watching the scene from his office, the school principal is pensive. He knows Jabal’s family and their story. How they came to his city school from the rural region of Banten.  How he enjoys coming to school and learning to read. How bright he is at maths. He also knows that time is running out for Jabal. That if he doesn’t get the teaching he needs to support him to reach his potential, he will probably leave school early (for a dead-end job in the nearby factory) and never fulfil his dream of becoming a manager in a haulage company.

The Indonesian education system is immense and diverse. It reflects aspects of its past, with a diverse ethnic and religious heritage, and a struggle for national identity. It has grown rapidly but access to good quality education is uneven. Over 50% of Indonesian 15 year olds don’t master basic skills in reading and maths.

The progress that has been made over the past decades in the economy has already pulled millions out of poverty. This has been done by encouraging and supporting education, health care and shifting actively to sectors like manufacturing. Nevertheless, much more needs to be done. Indonesia currently has 43% of its 250 million population under the age of 25 years old. What an opportunity this is, to be able to work now with these young people to advance their skills and learning. By investing in its human resources, Indonesia can propel growth further, which would permit better living and health conditions for citizens, as well as allowing the potential for added economic and social improvements.

Teachers have a critical role to play in the transformation process of the education system. Likewise, they need more support  to improve their professional abilities, and become more accountable for the results of students, as highlighted in this new OECD and Asian Development Bank (ADB) book: Education in Indonesia: Rising to the Challenge. In addition, more improvements are needed to the quality of education and skills training given to youth, along with a widening of the numbers that can participate in it, fundamentally so that all regions and social groups can benefit from it. Unquestionably, all youth deserve an equal chance to progress in their learning and to be able to reach higher levels of education. So the Indonesian government has made universal senior secondary education a priority in its 2015-2019 development plan.

Sadly, Jabal’s story is very similar to millions of others from all across the globe. On the other hand, what makes his story special is that now he can have hope. Because he is lucky enough to be living in Indonesia, where the government is committed to implementing structured educational reforms aimed at giving all youth equal opportunities to learn. Quality education enables social and economic progress, it will improve Jabal’s life and enable a more stable and happy future for him, and for all Indonesian citizens.

Photo credit: Dieng Plateau, Java, Indonesia - Sept 15, 2012 / @Shutterstock

Thursday, March 19, 2015

How should our schools respond to the changing demands of the twenty first century?

by Anthony Mann
Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce

This is the question addressed in a new publication featuring interviews with eight leading commentators on the relationship between education and employment.*

A number of common themes from the eight interviews are picked out in an introductory essay by editors Anthony Mann (Education and Employers Research) and Prue Huddleston (University of Warwick). Contributors note the ways that in the UK (and other OECD countries) the labour market has become notably more hostile to young people over the last generation with lower levels of qualification especially vulnerable.  A number of distinct trends relating to technological change, globalisation, competition from older workers and changes in recruitment practice have all worked to the structural disadvantage of young people. With an hour glass labour market hollowing out, the risk of becoming stuck in low skill, low pay employment has increased for young people.

Interviews highlight ways in which schools can, and should respond, to specific changes in the relationship between education and employment.

Firstly, as the labour market has become more complex, it has become more difficult for young people to make informed investment decisions about the education and training (human capital) they accumulate, contributing to significant mismatch between skills demanded by the labour market and those possessed by young people, increasing the importance of high quality careers provision informed by real workplace contacts.

As Ewart Keep argues: It is absolutely apparent that if we want to do anything to make transitions into an increasingly complex working world easier for young people, it is essential that high quality careers information advice and guidance is available.  Without that, we might as well give up, it is that important. …We need to help young people become far more discerning consumers of the provision available to them.

Secondly, dynamic, deregulated labour markets demand new skills from young people both in terms of what is needed to successfully navigate ever more fractured transitions from education into sustained employment, and with regard to skills (crucially, in the effective application of knowledge) associated with the most successful transitions.

As Andreas Schleicher argues: Schools need to stop preparing young people for the jobs that existed a generation ago and start preparing them for jobs which do not yet exist. For example, entrepreneurship education is much more important now than it was a generation ago because it teaches those skills and personal attributes which oil the modern labour market.  It should not be taught separately but written into every subject.  

The interviews tell a story of a labour market undergoing considerable change over the last generation, changing the character of work in ways which make young people less attractive propositions to employers.  In a youth labour market characterised by growing complexity, increasingly fractured transitions and employers demanding new skills, there is a call on schools to respond, notably, through improved careers education advice information and guidance, by the introduction of better preparation for recruitment and embracing approaches which enhance personal resiliency and the ability to apply knowledge effectively in unfamiliar situations.  In all of this, there is a very simple proposition: that for young people to go into the labour market with better prospects, the distance between the classroom and the workplace needs to be narrowed.

* The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher; Professor Chris Husbands (head of the UCL Institute of Education); Professor Ewart Keep, chair of Education, Training and Skills at the University of Oxford; Professor Lorna Unwin of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training; Professor Hugh Lauder of the Journal of Education and Work; David Pollard (of the Federation of Small Businesses); Peter Cheese (of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development); and Kay Carberry of the Trades Union Congress.


OECD work on skills: Skills.oecd
How should our schools respond to the demands of the twenty first century labour market? Eight perspectives. 
Skills beyond School Synthesis Report
Skills Outlook
How does educational attainment affect participation in the labour market?
Photo credit: Are you ready? Written on the road @shutterstock

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Why aren’t more girls choosing maths and science at university?

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

Percentage of tertiary qualifications awarded to women in tertiary-type A and advanced research programmes, by field of education (2000,2012)

Last Saturday, 14 April, Equal Pay Day reminded the world again of the large gap between men’s and women’s wages. Eradicating unjustifiable gender inequalities in earnings seems to be very hard to accomplish. Under-representation of women in jobs with higher salaries, different patterns of professional mobility and divergent occupational choices all seem to contribute to the gender gap in wages – in addition to outright gender discrimination. Closing this gap requires more than changes in wage structures, since occupational choices often reflect complex, gender-specific educational choices and schooling trajectories that are decided at least a decade earlier. Gender preferences, stereotypes, role models and forms of streaming and tracking frame decisions about education throughout childhood, and have profound consequences for both careers and earnings in adulthood.

But the gender gap in earnings is not only a problem for the individuals concerned; the gap is also indicative of the waste of talent and opportunities for societies and economies. Especially in those fields of study and careers that suffer severe shortages of personnel, such as the STEM fields, it is the lack of women that seems to raise the most immediate concern. That is why campaigns to promote STEM studies and professions in OECD countries often target women. Evidence of the success of these campaigns is scarce and mostly mixed.

But on an aggregate level, have OECD countries been successful in attracting more girls and women into STEM studies? The most recent Education Indicators in Focus issue No. 30 provides some interesting recent data on gender gaps in education and employment. In recent decades, significant progress has been made in raising women’s educational attainment, so that, on average, women now have higher attainment rates than men. Also, the higher the education level, the smaller the gender gap in employment. On average across OECD countries, the employment gap between tertiary-educated men and women now is only 9 percentage points, whereas it is 17 percentage points between men and women whose highest level of education is upper secondary. But this progress has only marginally affected gender inequalities in different fields of study.

The chart above shows that between 2000 and 2012 the percentage of university qualifications awarded to women grew in almost every field of study, except computing. The progress made by women was observed across the fields of study, but did not at all alter the pattern of women's participation. STEM fields did attract more women, but not disproportionally more compared to other fields.

This finding raises important questions  about how and what boys and girls choose to study, how they make those decisions, and the role of schools and education systems in reproducing gender-specific education trajectories. A report based on PISA 2012 data published last week – The ABC of Gender Equality in Education – sheds some light on some of the underlying reasons why more women are not pursuing STEM subjects. The results of the study are discomforting for those who think that more and better education for girls would help to undermine stereotyped notions about studies and careers. Girls seem to lack self-confidence in their ability to solve maths and science problems. Girls – even high-achieving girls – are also more likely to express strong feelings of anxiety towards mathematics. On average across OECD countries, the score-point difference in mathematics performance between high-achieving girls and boys is 19 score points. However, 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.

These findings resonate with some recent research on the role of early school experiences in shaping one’s identity as a “maths person” or “not a maths person”. The teaching of maths – and, to a lesser extent, science – seems to involve a process of negative selection based on induced anxiety; and this process is heavily gender-biased. Recent neuro-scientific research has shown that teaching maths can be done much more effectively and successfully for every learner, but these insights rarely find their way into teacher training, curricula and educational resources,  where maths seems to be defined as something only a few, mostly males, can master. In a world in which numbers pervade all spheres of life, schools and universities could do a better job in challenging gender-stereotyped ideas about maths and science, both as fields of study and as a career choice. In the 21st century, we simply don’t have the luxury to continue wasting the talents of our motivated and hard-working young women and men.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 30, by Eric Charbonnier, Simon Normandeau and Gara Rojas Gonzalez
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm
Chart Source @ OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, Indicator A3