By Glenda Quintini.
One of the most striking findings when comparing the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) – which focuses on 16-65-year olds – to the PISA survey – which targets 15-year-old students – is the evolution of the gender gap in proficiency. In fact, in the PISA assessment, girls tend to outperform boys in reading, and are more likely to enrol in tertiary education. On the other hand, the Survey of Adult Skills shows generally small gender differences in literacy proficiency and more sizeable differences in numeracy, both to the advantage of men.
Although it is hard to precisely compare PISA and PIAAC scores (because of differences in the way the surveys are conceived), the reduction of the gap in literacy could be attributed to the fact that men have higher employment rates, and reading is a transversal skill that is practiced across a wide range of occupations. As far as numeracy is concerned, similar factors are probably at play, reinforced by the fact that men are much more likely to undertake careers in fields that require a more intense use of numeracy skills. This also suggests that gender differences in terms of subjects studied in upper secondary and higher education, and subsequent career choices, are likely to be important determinants of the gaps we still observe in terms of wages and employment opportunities.
Partly for these reasons, gender stereotyping in career choice is a crucial issue that many governments are struggling with. On the one hand, women are under-represented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields hence lose out on high-wages and rewarding careers in jobs that are in high demand (Figure 1, data from OECD Education at a Glance, 2015). On the other, they are over-represented in humanities and social sciences, where the over-supply of graduates often leads to their unemployment or to jobs that are in fields that differ from those pursued during one’s studies, often at a lower level than that corresponding to the worker’s attained qualification.
Women also lose out on the potential employability gains related to vocational education and training (VET). As Figure 2 shows, in the vast majority of countries, more men than women attend VET courses, despite VET providing very good employment prospects, particularly when not pursuing tertiary studies or when compared to dropping out of education before the end of high school.
In addition, a study by Giorgio Brunello and Lorenzo Rocco (2015) shows that those women who engage in VET stand to gain less than their male counterparts (Figure 3). This is likely to be partly related to different returns to VET across trades, in favour of male-dominated professions. However, other factors could be to blame: it is possible that employers discriminate against women in male-dominated professions reducing returns for female graduates both in terms of employability and wages; or women may perform better in general education than in hands-on vocational strands, irrespective of the trade being learnt.
A similar picture emerges for apprenticeship training, in which women are also heavily under-represented in most countries (Figure 4). An overview of apprenticeships systems written by Hillary Steedman as part of the ILO contribution to the G20 Employment Taskforce in 2012, stressed how young women’s choice of apprenticeship occupations had remained focussed primarily on business and service sector occupations despite campaigns to attract them to predominantly male occupations. The report also called for a diversified apprenticeship offer that would respect women’s choice and provide high-quality training for service sector occupations such as health and child care frequently preferred by young women.
Also in the context of the G20, an OECD report produced in 2013 stressed how quality apprenticeships should cover multiple sectors and occupations and should encourage the participation of women. In particular, OECD called for apprenticeships not to be confined to the traditional trades, where men are usually over-represented, but to extend to the service sector where women are more present. This is a key element to ensure that apprenticeships are inclusive and that apprentices acquire the skills that are required in new and innovative sectors, which are likely associated with the strongest labour demand in the future.
Overall, women stand to gain from undertaking studies in traditionally male-dominated sectors, both in terms of employability and in terms of earnings. However, such a switch would require action on various fronts: high-quality career guidance based on sound labour market information on skill needs to inform girls on promising careers in growing economic sectors; information campaigns promoting diversity in workplaces and encouraging employers, particularly in shortage occupations, to tap into under-represented socio-demographic groups – such as women in male-dominated professions; and the identification of female role models in male-dominated careers to promote interest from girls, their families as well as employers.