Gender biases can be persistent. Too persistent. A simple exercise to illustrate the point: Picture a doctor or a professor. You will most likely think of a man. Now think of nurses and teachers and you are likely to imagine a woman. This unconscious gender bias is rooted in years of associating male and female attributes to specific roles in society. Inevitably, it also influences students’ career choices.
Gender differences in career aspirations are set early on. Children tend to mimic the social environment in which they grew up: boys are more drawn towards male-dominated fields while girls aspire to careers held by inspirational role models of their own gender. By the age of 15, boys and girls have already been regularly exposed to one of the most strongly gender-biased professions: teaching. On average across OECD countries, 83% of primary teachers are women; and this proportion shows no sign of shrinking anytime soon.
Careers in science show the opposite trend. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that even if boys and girls have similar scores in science, girls are less likely than boys to envision themselves in a science-related career when they are 30. This demonstrates that aspirations to pursue a career in science are not necessarily determined by students’ aptitude in these fields.
Data on fields of study released in Education at a Glance 2017 and analysed in a new Education Indicators in Focus confirm that the gender disparities observed in career aspirations in the PISA study are alive and well in tertiary education too. Three out of four students entering the field of education are women; but only one out of four entering the field of engineering, manufacturing and construction is female. Moreover, the share of women entering a programme in engineering, manufacturing and construction is even smaller than the share of 15-year-old girls who aspire to work in science and engineering, showing the effect of social norms over just a few years, and their impact on all-important career decisions.