Doctors and nurses are from Venus, scientists and engineers are from Mars (for now)

By Francesco Avvisati 
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

There is little doubt that in OECD countries, the chances for boys and girls to succeed and contribute to society have become more equal over the past century. Every International Women’s Day, however, we are also reminded of the remaining obstacles towards gender equality. This month’s PISA in Focus illustrates both the progress that enables girls today to aspire to roles once exclusively reserved for men, and the remaining obstacles on the road to closing gender gaps.

The progress can be readily seen in the health sector. Only a generation ago, in most countries, women represented only a minority among doctors; today, in many hospitals, the majority of young doctors are women. That trend is likely to continue, if you trust current patterns of enrolment in tertiary health-related programmes and in girls’ expectations for their own future careers.

But not all science-related occupations saw similar progress for women. Very few women have top academic positions in physics, for instance, and the last time a Nobel prize in physics was awarded to a woman was in 1963. Meanwhile, new occupations in the emerging information and communication technology industries are often, and overwhelmingly, dominated by men. These trends are unlikely to reverse in the near future, in the absence of targeted efforts. In 2015, when PISA asked students about the occupation they expect to be working in when they are 30 years old, boys were more than twice as likely as girls to cite a career as scientist or engineering professional. Only 0.4% of girls, but 4.8% of boys, said they expected a career as software developer or information and communication technology professional.

Occupational segregation – the fact that women and men work in different occupations, even in closely related fields – is a leading cause of the persistent wage gaps between the genders. Countries that support boys and girls alike in the pursuit of science-related careers may not only reduce pay gaps between men and women, but also ensure that no talent for innovation and growth is wasted – to the benefit of all.

Look at the contributions to society made by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (who was involved in the work that identified the human immunodeficiency virus [HIV] as the cause of AIDS), Grace Hopper (a US Navy Rear Admiral and computer scientist who was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language) and Marie Curie (a pioneer in research on radioactivity and winner of two Nobel prizes – in two different science disciplines), to name just three women who were innovators in their chosen fields of science. An International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated earlier this month, serves as an annual reminder that women do have a place in these fields and that they should be encouraged to occupy it. But wouldn’t it be more beneficial to everyone if we acted on that understanding every single day?

Links
PISA in Focus No. 69: What kind of careers in science do 15-year-old boys and girls expect for themselves?
PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
Education at a Glance 2016
Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now
Health at a Glance 2015
International Women's Day

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