Women’s outcomes in education and employment: strong gains, but more to do

by Éric Charbonnier and Corinne Heckmann
Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education

There’s no denying it: when it comes to education and employment, women are on a roll, all over the world.  As described in the latest issue of the OECD’s new brief series Education Indicators in Focus, the achievement gap between boys and girls has narrowed so much at lower levels of education that the focus of concern is now on the underachievement of boys.  On the 2009 PISA reading assessment, for example, 15-year-old girls outperformed boys in every OECD country, on average by 39 points – the equivalent of one year of school.

Young women are also making strong progress in higher education in OECD countries.  In 2000, 51% percent of women could be expected to enter a university-level programme at some point in their lives; today, the number is 66%.  In fact, the proportion of women who hold a university-level qualification now equals or exceeds that of men in 29 of the 32 OECD countries for which data are comparable. This figure is below 50% only in China, Japan, Korea and Turkey.

At the same time, still more can be done to improve outcomes for girls and young women in the classroom.  In mathematics, for example, 15-year-old boys tend to perform slightly better than girls in most countries, while science performance is more variable.  And in higher education, women remain under-represented at the most advanced levels.  Across all OECD countries, less than half of advanced research qualifications such as doctorates were awarded to women in 2009.  In Japan and Korea, the figure is only around 30%.  This pattern holds in all countries except Brazil, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal and the United States.

In addition, some fields of study are still branded as “masculine” or “feminine”. In 2009, more than 70% of higher education students in the field of education were women, and an average of 75% of the degrees in the fields of health and welfare also went to women. By contrast, in most countries, fewer than 30% of all graduates in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction were women.

Nonetheless, women’s strides in education have led to improved labour market outcomes for women overall. For instance, the gender gap in employment narrowed from 25 percentage points in 2000 to 21 percentage points in 2009 among those without an upper secondary qualification, and from 19 percentage points in 2000 to 15 percentage points in 2009 among those with an upper secondary qualification. And it’s narrower still among those with a higher education qualification, shrinking from 11 percentage points in 2000 to 9 percentage points in 2009.

Increasingly, OECD countries are doing more to address gender gaps – both in education and employment.  For example, in the Czech Republic, Germany and the Slovak Republic, the proportion of women graduating with science degrees grew by more than 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2009.  As a result, these countries are now closer to the OECD average of 40% -- a figure that has remained stable over the past decade. In 2000, the European Union announced a goal to increase the number of university graduates in mathematics, science and technology by at least 15% by 2010, and to reduce the gender imbalance in these subjects. So far, however, progress toward this goal has been marginal.

On the employment side, the Nordic countries, Germany and Portugal have instituted policies allowing fathers to receive parental leave and income support so their spouses can remain in the workforce.  In Iceland, Norway and Spain, some firms are required to have at least 40% of their boardroom seats assigned to women. Meanwhile, other companies, such as Deutsche Telekom, have introduced voluntary quotas for women in management and family-friendly practices such as flex-times and tele-working.

The bottom line is clear: while girls and women have made strong gains, it’s time to finish the job.  To promote gender equality even further, policymakers should be encouraged to pursue policies to increase mathematics and science performance among girls – as well as reading achievement among boys.  Meanwhile, initiatives to break down gender stereotypes in fields of study and progressive corporate policies can do more to increase women’s employment opportunities.

For more information
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus
OECD Gender Initiative
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators
On the OECD’s Indicators of Education Systems (INES) programme, visit:
INES Programme overview brochure
Chart source: OECD Education Database


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