Free DP Download 31 October 2019 - GENDER GAPS IN EDUCATION, OVER TIME AND ACROSS COUNTRIES: The latest evidence from economic research on causes and consequences

Thursday, October 31, 2019

GENDER GAPS IN EDUCATION, OVER TIME AND ACROSS COUNTRIES: The latest evidence from economic research on causes and consequences 
Graziella Bertocchi and Monica Bozzano    
CEPR DP No. 14082 | 25 October 2019

A new CEPR study by Graziella Bertocchi and Monica Bozzano reviews the growing body of economic research on the education gender gap and its evolution, over time and across countries. 

The study first focuses on gender differentials in the historical period from 1850 to the Second World War, documenting the deep determinants of the early phase of female education expansion, including pre-industrial conditions, religion, and family and kinship patterns. The authors then describe the stylised facts of contemporary gender gaps in education, from the 1950s to the present day. 

The determinants of the gaps are then summarised followed by a discussion of the implications of the education gender gap for multiple realms. Special attention is devoted to the persistency of gender gaps in economics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Among the findings: 

  • For the majority of human history, women have been undereducated relative to men. Traditionally education was reserved for female nobility and, even then, it was focused mainly on specific ‘women’s subjects’, such as needlework and household duties.
  • The rise of modern economic growth over the last two centuries witnessed the widespread expansion of mass schooling. Yet the initial extension of education opportunities benefited mostly boys. 
  • Only since the 19th century has there been progress in women’s formal education, and a convergence with men from the beginning of the 20th century, as modernisation and economic development proceeded.
  • For the non-western world, between 1820 and 1900 schooling still remained largely neglected. Differences between women and men were much wider in developing countries.
  • A retarding force to female education has been religion – and not only in the past. Catholicism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Islam have all made the education of males over females a high priority. Protestantism, on the other hand, played an important role in enhancing female education historically.
  • In most patriarchal societies parents underinvest in the education of their daughters, who then acquire very limited access to education, while their employment opportunities are further constrained by the indirect effect of early marriage. 

Post-war period

  • Despite the fact that gender-based inequalities have tended to close in recent years, sharp differences still exist across levels of education and across countries. A majority of regions have reached gender parity in primary education, but disparities persist at higher levels.
  • At the tertiary level, OECD data show that the fraction of women attaining a degree has surpassed that of men, to reach 34% and 30%, respectively, by 2012. 
  • In 2017, among individuals aged 25 to 34 who attained a master’s degree, women represented the majority in 33 countries, while this was true only in 11 countries at the doctoral level. 
  • Yet in the face of generalised improvement, in severely disadvantaged populations, girls remain the last to enrol and the first to drop out. 
  • Some gender norms that originated in response to specific historical circumstances, but were then transmitted across generations and tend to persist even after the originating historical conditions and incentives have changed. Hence, the same drivers of the pre-war gender gaps may still be at play in the post-war period.
  • Technological innovation, in its various forms, has freed women from household work, raising their value in the labour market and their incentive to become more educated. 
  • Although women have outpaced men in educational attainment, on average – even in OECD countries – gender gaps in employment, entrepreneurship and politics persist.
  • Visible discriminatory gaps against women persist, in secondary and especially tertiary education, in the choice of the fields of study, with lifelong consequences for their occupational careers and earning profiles. 
  • In particular, at the college level, women are underrepresented in the STEM fields, which typically lead to higher employability and wages. Only 30% of the female student population in higher education is in STEM fields.

Although much progress has been done in identifying and understanding the determinants and implications of gender gaps in education, some puzzles still remain unresolved. Despite the closing, or even the reversal, of gender gaps worldwide, in the developing world there are still large discrepancies in access to schooling for girls and in basic literacy among adult women. 

Even in rich countries, girls are still at disadvantage given their apparent self-selection out of the more lucrative fields of study in STEM and economics. Lastly, it is not yet entirely understood why girls’ remarkable progress in education has not so far fully propagated to other realms where women are still discriminated against – from their performance in the labour markets to their position within the household and their accomplishment in the political arena.


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