Gender equality in education

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 researchsuggests 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.