The other gender gap

The Economist discusses a new OECD report on a growing gender gap in schools:

It is a problem that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Until the 1960s boys spent longer and went further in school than girls, and were more likely to graduate from university. Now, across the rich world and in a growing number of poor countries, the balance has tilted the other way. …

The reversal is laid out in a report published on March 5th by the OECD, a Paris-based rich-country think-tank. Boys’ dominance just about endures in maths: at age 15 they are, on average, the equivalent of three months’ schooling ahead of girls. In science the results are fairly even. But in reading, where girls have been ahead for some time, a gulf has appeared. In all 64 countries and economies in the study, girls outperform boys. The average gap is equivalent to an extra year of schooling.

The gap is particularly stark at the bottom, with teenage boys “50% more likely than girls to fail to achieve basic proficiency in any of maths, reading and science.” While Larry Summers got crucified for referring to male-female differences in variation in different human traits, the higher rates of low proficiency among boys reflects the often ignored consequence of Summers’s statement – more males at the bottom.

The article notes other explanations for the gap such as time doing homework, attitude to school and reading at home, but one of the more interesting explanations might be discrimination:

Perhaps because they can be so insufferable, teenage boys are often marked down. The OECD found that boys did much better in its anonymised tests than in teacher assessments. The gap with girls in reading was a third smaller, and the gap in maths—where boys were already ahead—opened up further. In another finding that suggests a lack of even-handedness among teachers, boys are more likely than girls to be forced to repeat a year, even when they are of equal ability.

There are likely ways to improve test outcomes for some of the lowest performing students. Anonymised tests could be one.

But will the net result of interventions to increase male or female school performance open or close the gap? Making the environment the same for everyone will exacerbate innate differences. Different teaching environments for boys and girls may maximise performance, but again, it’s not clear what size the gap would be under that arrangement (Or teaching could be adjusted based on traits such as IQ and big five personality traits – females tend to score higher on agreeableness and conscientiousness – removing direct discrimination, but effectively treating boys and girls differently on average)

The advantage of females over males continues through to tertiary education:

In the OECD women now make up 56% of students enrolled, up from 46% in 1985. By 2025 that may rise to 58%.

Even in the handful of OECD countries where women are in the minority on campus, their numbers are creeping up. Meanwhile several, including America, Britain and parts of Scandinavia, have 50% more women than men on campus. …

According to the OECD, the return on investment in a degree is higher for women than for men in many countries, though not all.

So why does the income gap persist in the workforce? The Economist article closes with research by Claudia Goldin:

In a recent paper in the American Economic Review Ms Goldin found that the difference between the hourly earnings of highly qualified men and their female peers grows hugely in the first 10-15 years of working life, largely because of a big premium in some highly paid jobs on putting in long days and being constantly on call. On the whole men find it easier than women to work in this way.

It is not easy to develop a policy response to this, nor for a business to try to close the gap without trade-offs. One possibility is gender quotas, although this may largely operate to the advantage of women who do not take time off for family reasons.

Another option is to require men to take paternity leave when they have children. But this penalises both men and women who have children. I am all for people bearing the costs of their children, but a policy to exacerbate those costs in the workplace seems misplaced.

Another question around this option is why time out of the workplace relating to children is specifically targeted. What of those who want to travel, study or volunteer for charity, each of which surely come with costs?

A less prescriptive response is reflected in the closing part of Goldin’s paper, where she writes:

The last chapter must be concerned with how worker time is allocated, used and remunerated and it must involve a reduction in the dependence of remuneration on particular segments of time. It must involve greater independence and autonomy for certain types of workers and the ability of workers to substitute seamlessly for each other. Flexibility at work has become a prized benefit but flexibility is of less value if it comes at a high price in terms of earnings. The various types of temporal flexibility require changes in the structure of work so that their cost is reduced.

Goldin mentions that some jobs necessarily involve long hours and availability at all times. These professions will be resistant to a closing of the gap. However, for jobs that do not require long hours, how easy it is to replace time-based measures? Outputs in many of those jobs are credence goods (think of a lot of output from consulting or even law). Hours worked may be the only tangible measure the employers and clients have.


  1. Another amazing post Jason. We should all hope that we are indeed on the cusp of the “Last Chapter” in this story. It is time for the billions of genders/sexes (gensexes) of Homo sapiens on this planet to come together to know ourselves in order to save ourselves from ourselves. This ‘Last Chapter’ paper will surely move us a huge distance towards that goal. The paper (and The Economist for articulating and distributing its gyst to its massive and, one assumes influential, reader workforce) should receive much credit for getting us to here. Now it is up to people of all our multiple sex/genders to bring their new understanding into their personal lives, today. Thanks for your help with that Jason.

    All best regards to all,


    PS. One other bit of recent social science that will also advance the Last Chapter’s work is The Silent Sex,a book published in 2014 as well (by Princeton U Press) that tells us how to manage our gendered/sexed selves in small decision-making groups (the core groups of humanity) … Spoiler alert: it requires two things: 1) balance within the group with respect to its sex/gender ratio; and 2) clear decision rules that also deliver balanced outcomes — once again matching ♀ and ♂ tendencies to cooperate and/or compete in a balanced way. At last (another last chapter?) the science of humanity is achieving real insights and immediate actions that people of good will can apply in their daily lives to change our world today.

    Is it possible that we can save ourselves from ourselves? We seem determined to do that experiment,now — in fact, I would say that we are well on the way already… and if that isn’t enough excitement for the mid-second decade of the 21st century, then what is?

    Cheers from here.

  2. I know this is politically incorrect, but I fail to understand why we would want to correct for statistical imbalances based upon different utilities between classes. The definition of impartial and fair is that a woman who works as hard, as long and such as a male and who is equally capable should be treated fairly. There is no indication that this is not the case. If women have different goals, aspirations and utilities then power to them.

  3. I am confused by the last passage cited from Goldin’s paper. Why “must” we seek to reduce the linkage between remuneration and particular segments of time. No doubt, that would change outcomes, but presumably those paying the remuneration find that this structure provides the incentives to maximize the value of their labour force.

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