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Gender gaps in university education and pay

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Women earn substantially less than men in all advanced economies, despite the considerable progress women have made in labour markets worldwide. The researchers used data from six cohorts of university graduates in Germany, collected by the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), to assess the extent of gender gaps in college and labour market performance twelve to eighteen months after graduation. Germany provides an interesting case for this analysis as the fourth largest economy in the world, with a highly educated population, one of the most skilled workforces and a longstanding body of anti-discrimination laws. In terms of the economy, Germany has significantly increased its competiveness over recent years but at the same time among OECD countries, Germany has one of the highest pay gaps among full-time employees.

The study provides new evidence on a variety of facets of gender gaps.

Immediately after university completion, male and female full-timers work very similar number of hours, but men earn more across the pay distribution. The single most important factor that explains the gap is the field of study at university, with the largest differences being between graduates from economics/business and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

There are six main findings on the gender gap in university education:

  • In the last twenty years, roughly equal numbers of men and women enrol in higher education programmes.
  • Among those who completed college, women enter university with better secondary school marks.
  • At the end of their university career, more women than men obtain a degree.
  • There are substantially more men in STEM subjects and more women in arts and humanities, though to a lesser degree in recent years.
  • Male graduates perform better than female graduates in terms of final marks.
  • Gender gaps in graduation marks differ by field of study, with larger gaps in humanities and STEM subjects.

Several influences may be at work behind the results. The importance of field of study may affect occupational choice at the very beginning of professional careers and in turn, such choices could be partly driven by gender differences in preferences, self-confidence, competitiveness, earnings and expectations, for example. A number of relevant research questions emerge in order to inform the next steps forward in terms of policy.

  • As universities critically look at their programmes in terms of the challenges of new technologies and labour market demands, what are the possibilities to further address gender imbalances in university related choices, given (for example) the strong link between field of study and labour market opportunities?
  • How can firms be put in a position to allow greater flexibility to their workers without compromising career prospects?

Progress on these research questions could help address the gender pay gap (for example, through technological and institutional changes) and in turn improve wellbeing in society.

Read the full paper here and the blog “Early gender gaps among university graduates” by Matthias Parey and Marco Francesconi