Girls, boys and career expectations

Given what we know about 15-year-olds’ performance in school, who do you think is well-prepared to look for a job or continued studies after compulsory education ends: girls or boys? A new PISA study, The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence has an alarming answer to this question: neither. In a rare, albeit unfortunate, example of gender equality, across the OECD countries that distributed a questionnaire about students’ career expectations, almost one in four girls and one in five boys reported that they did not know how to search for a job. Some 43% of girls and 37% of boys reported that they had not mastered the skills needed to perform well at a job interview; and almost one in three boys and girls reported that they had not acquired the skills needed to write a CV or a summary of their qualifications.

The study also finds that our schools could do more to better prepare young people for the world of work. More than one in two students reported that they had learned how to find information about jobs that interest them outside of school, while only 38% of students reported that they had acquired such skills at school.

How are these statistics related to gender equality in education? They suggest that gender differences in students’ attitudes towards school subjects and in students’ expectations for their future studies and careers could be reinforced by a lack of practical skills in how to find out about and search for jobs. For example, 20% of 15-year-old boys in OECD countries contemplate pursuing a career in engineering or computing, while less than 5% of girls do (in the United Kingdom, nearly 13% of boys but only 2% of girls envision such a career for themselves). And in all countries and economies surveyed about students’ career expectations, parents were more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field – even when boys and girls perform equally well in mathematics and science. Without access to information about what these careers entail – indeed, without the skills to know how and where to find such information – it is unlikely that larger proportions of boys and girls will choose to pursue one of these careers. This is important not only because women are severely under-represented in STEM fields of study and occupations, but also because graduates of these fields – both men and women – are in high demand in the labour market and because jobs in these fields are among the most highly paid.

Employers can help to narrow gender disparities in students’ career choices. The PISA study shows, for example, that girls are more likely than boys to get information about future studies or careers through Internet research, while boys are more likely than girls to get hands-on experience by working as interns, job shadowing or visiting a job fair. This implies that employers can do more to seek out and welcome equal numbers of girls and boys for internships or job shadowing.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember not only that gender equality involves both girls and boys, women and men, but that narrowing or eliminating gender gaps in education and employment requires some effort from all of us: from parents who encourage both their sons and their daughters to succeed in school; from teachers who ask all their students to think independently; and from employers who are willing to reward the knowledge and skills they seek wherever – and in whomever – they’re found.

Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)