Do men’s and women’s choices of field of study explain why women earn less than men?

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

Fields of education are ranked in descending order of the share of men who studied in this specific field.

Although we’ve observed for a long time that young men and women tend to choose different fields of study – young men are more apt than young women to pursue a degree in engineering while more women than men opt for a teaching career, for example – until recently, we have had no reliable data to support this perception. Nor could we measure the impact of these choices on employment and earnings. But recent data collections, such as the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), finally offer some quantitative evidence on these crucial issues.

The latest Education Indicators in Focus brief summarises the available evidence from the Survey of Adult Skills on gender differences across fields of study. The data are mind-blowing. As shown in the figure above, across the countries and subnational entities with available data, only 7% of women had studied engineering, manufacturing and construction, compared to 31% of men. In contrast, the share of women who had graduated from a teacher-training and education-science programme or from a health and welfare programme is more than double that of men. These are averages, and differences among countries in the magnitude of the gender gaps between fields of study are also large.

Why women and men choose to pursue different fields of study, and why those choices vary among countries, is not easy to determine. Gender stereotyping of jobs and occupations, which often result in different career expectations for girls and boys, and gendered roles in personal and professional life all influence the decisions that lead to gender-related differences in the choice of studies and careers. But whatever the causes may be, the consequences are clear. As discussed in the Education in Focus brief, employment patterns differ between fields of study, depending on the gender imbalance. Because of higher rates of inactivity among women, the employment rates of graduates from the field of teacher training and education, which is mainly chosen by women, tend to be lower than that for more male-dominated fields of study. Indeed, for all fields of study, the employment rate among men is significantly higher than that among women.

Obviously, this has an impact on men’s and women’s earnings. Some fields of study lead to higher wages than others; these are usually male-dominated fields. Inactivity and employment patterns also add to gender gaps in earnings. But how important are the differences in men’s and women’s choices of field of study in explaining overall gender inequality in, for example, earnings?

The gender gap in earnings can be attributed to average earnings differences between fields of study and different rates of participation in the labour market and in employment; but it is also related to the gender-stereotyped  profiles of occupations and career developments within each field.

To assess the latter, it is interesting to look at earnings differences between men and women in a specific field of study, preferably one where gender differences in graduation are not too large, such as in social sciences, business and law. Some 27% of all 25-64 year-old respondents in the Survey of Adult Skills had graduated from this field, with a difference of only a few percentage points between men and women. On average across OECD countries and subnational entities surveyed, women working in this field earn only 75% of what men earn. In Chile and Japan, women who graduated from social sciences, business and law earn less than 60% of what men in the same field earn.

Gender-related differences in labour-force participation or in salary schemes are certainly not the main reasons for these earnings disparities: even in a region with high female participation in the labour force and legislated gender equality in labour conditions and salary, such as Flanders (Belgium), women still earn more than 25% less than what men working in the same field earn.

Tackling gender inequalities in employment and income will require the dismantling of gender stereotypes of fields of study and occupations. Getting more young women into the field of engineering and more young men into teacher training would be an excellent first step. But we also need to remove the glass ceilings and the explicit and implicit discriminations in the labour market and the professions that prevent women from occupying more senior positions within specific fields. As is evident in this year’s edition of Education at a Glance, even within a largely female-dominated field such as education, school principals still are predominantly men. It’s about time that we remove all the obstacles that prevent half of the world’s population from allowing their skills and talents to flourish unimpeded.

Education Indicators in Focus No. 45: Fields of education, gender and the labour market, by Gara Rojas González, Simon Normandeau and Rie Fujisawa.
Indicateurs de l'Éducation à La Loupe No. 45: Domaines d’études et marché du travail: où en sont les hommes et les femmes ?
Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators
Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC)

Chart source: OECD, (2012, 2015) Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC),

In case you haven’t heard…

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s (almost) that time again: in just a few short weeks we’ll be hearing a lot more about how well our education systems are doing compared with others around the world. On 6 December, the latest results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, will be made public. If you aren’t yet sure about what PISA is or how it works, check out this new video. And watch this space: there will be more PISA-related information posted here in the coming weeks to help you understand what everyone will be talking about when the results from the 2015 assessment are released.

The Alliance for Excellent Education and OECD webinar : PISA 2015: A Sneak Preview 
Tuesday 25 October 2016 9:30 am – 10:30 am ET
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia and Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills share sample questions from PISA and discuss how PISA can impact education policy around the world.

Watch webinar here.
Follow #OECDPISA on twitter

What can maths teachers learn from PISA?

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

When we think back on schools in the 20th century, we imagine rows of students facing the front of the classroom and listening to the teacher lecture. Even though more and more education policies over the past 20 years are encouraging teachers to give students the chance to actively participate in their learning, in 2012, only one in four students across OECD countries reported that their teacher asks them to break out into small groups to work out a problem on their own.

Of course, teachers want students to enjoy the learning process but they also want students to focus on the topic at hand, keeping disorder in the classroom to a minimum. OECD’s newest report, Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and how PISA can help answer them, based on PISA 2012 data, delves into diverse teaching and learning methods and what works for different types of classrooms around the world.

When it comes to learning mathematics, certain teacher-directed learning strategies, such as asking questions to check whether students understand what has been taught, has proven to work well when solving basic mathematics problems. And research does show that student-oriented strategies, such as allowing students to collaborate and direct their own learning, can have a positive impact on their learning and motivation.

But teacher-directed strategies, and in fact all teaching strategies, work best when teachers also challenge students and encourage them to focus more on the process rather than the answer. These types of strategies, known as cognitive-activation strategies, ask students to summarise, question and predict – requiring students to link new information to information they have already learned and apply their skills to a new context where the answer to a problem is not immediately obvious or can even be solved in multiple ways. In fact, PISA data indicate that across OECD countries, students who reported that their teachers use cognitive-activation strategies more frequently in their mathematics classes score higher in mathematics.

Depending on the classroom environment, teachers understand that they need to combine different strategies to ensure that students grasp the basic concepts but are also able to advance further when ready, tackling more challenging problems on their own.

Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers explores these topics along with others that are relevant for mathematics teachers today. The report takes findings based on PISA data and organises them into ten questions encompassing teaching and learning strategies, curriculum coverage and various student characteristics, looking at how they relate to student achievement, mathematics instruction and to each other. Ten Questions aims to give teachers timely evidence-based insights that will help them reflect on their teaching strategies and how students learn.

Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and how PISA can help answer them
Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All

Webinar – Friday, October 7, 2016 9:30 am – 10:45 am ET
Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers… and How PISA Can Help Answer Them Presented by The Alliance for Excellent Education and OECD. 
Photo credit: © OECD

Empowering teachers with high-quality professional development

by Fabian Barrera-Pedemonte
UCL Institute of Education and Thomas J. Alexander Fellow

Today marks World Teacher’s Day, which aims to address the challenge of mobilising a roadmap for teachers towards 2030. UNESCO acknowledges that a considerable intensification of effort is needed to provide sufficiently qualified, motivated and supported teachers. To underline the task ahead according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, countries will need to recruit a total of 12.6 million primary teachers by 2020. However, the question remains for policy makers is how can they provide for the demand and development of teachers while maintaining quality education? Teacher policies are complex and interdependent, and well-performing countries do not necessarily converge in this regard.

A new OECD working paper “High-Quality Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Teaching Practices: Evidence from TALIS 2013” advocates for more sensitive measures to capture the actual support experienced by teachers in the light of their professional development opportunities. It examines the association between crucial features of professional development and effective teaching practices across 35 countries and economies that participated in TALIS 2013.

Discussions between experts and stakeholders have looked at teachers’ annual participation in activities of professional development which, gives an indication of how much guidance and support they receive in their careers. However, research has shown that availability of in-service training is not the problem – it is the quality of training received that makes all of the difference. The challenge for policy makers is to identify and select the features of professional development that are more likely to modify and improve teaching practices.

The paper suggests that a global monitoring of the support given to teachers could measure the quality of teacher professional development as a key indicator of progress.

Certain features of teacher professional development are more important than others for the adoption of quality teaching practices. Curriculum focused development is clearly more related to the adoption of classroom practices than pedagogy and subject matter focused training. By stimulating collaboration between teachers, where they share and support their learning process, shows a systematically positive association with all reported teaching methods.

However, the findings also show that is not so much that one particular feature that makes a quality TPD programme, but rather a combination of characteristics. TPD that has an active learning approach, incorporates teacher from the same school, promotes collaboration between teachers, is carried out over the long term, and is curriculum focused was positively associated with the strategies carried out by teachers to improve students’ learning in practically all of the 35 countries and economies that participated in TALIS 2013. In general, these results suggest that the higher the exposure of teachers to high-quality TPD, the greater the chance they report using a wide variety of teaching methods in the classroom. Furthermore, this dimension is cross-culturally comparable, making it highly relevant when it comes to looking at contrasting countries with diverse historical and social development. 

This paper suggests the following policies for consideration for teacher professional development:

  • encouraging teachers’ engagement in curriculum-focused and collaborative learning activities or research with other teachers
  • developing strategies to monitor its quality  whilst ensuring national standards and assurance procedures
  • removing barriers due to gender or other factors  identified at the national or local level (e.g. ethnicity, types of schools, etc.)
  • ensuring that teachers who have not completed initial training are also exposed to high-quality support in this area.

Exposure to high quality teacher professional development varies greatly both between and within countries, which broadens the scope of work for policy makers. The global education agenda is undeniably ambitious and the teaching profession will be a key to fulfilling these goals for the benefit of societies worldwide.

OECD Education Working Paper No. 141: High-Quality Teacher Professional Development and Classroom Teaching Practices: Evidence from TALIS 2013

TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning
Photo credit: Vector illustration of poster to the World teacher's day on the gradient green background @Fotolia