While women have largely erased, and in some areas even reversed, the historic gender gap in educational attainment, some career outcomes can still skew along gender lines. Women are overrepresented in the arts and the humanities, and men are overrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Research indicates that gaps in numeracy and literacy also skew along gender lines, with boys tending to outperform girls in numeracy and girls tending to outperform boys in literacy. Yet we know very little about how these gaps develop and change as children grow up. A new international study in the Economics of Education Review aims to chart the evolution of those gaps between childhood and young adulthood.
In the absence of cross-country comparable longitudinal data, the analysts—a trio from the U.K., Spain, and France—combine information from existing cross-sectional large scale assessments that contain representative samples of the same birth cohort at different points in time in up to eleven countries. Thus they are able to track the evolution of gender gaps for a single cohort of students that participated in different waves of different assessments from ages ten to twenty-seven. Specifically, they focus on individuals born in 1984 and 1985 who were roughly ten years old when they took the TIMSS assessment (a test of numeracy) and PIRLS (a test of literacy), fifteen years old when they took the PISA (which tests both literacy and numeracy), and twenty-seven years old when they took the PIAAC assessment in 2011–12 (also covering both domains).
For the TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA test administrations, schools are sampled first, then students in the schools. By contrast, PIAAC samples households first and then individuals in them. Analysts standardized all scores by subtracting from individual scores the overall mean score and dividing by the overall standard deviation. They decided not to use models with numerous controls because they were primarily interested in whether the performance of boys and girls differs rather than whether it differs based on a range of other dimensions. Plus, the primary question is how these gaps evolve over time, and there are very few background variables measured consistently and comparably enough for comparison across the various tests.
The key finding is that, in the large majority of countries, the gender gap in numeracy in favor of boys tends to be linear, widening as students age, with the gap particularly pronounced after leaving compulsory schooling and entering post-secondary education or the labor market. By contrast, the gender gap in literacy is highest during the teenage years and lowest among young adults. Specifically, numeracy gender gaps are small at age nine/ten, with an advantage for boys around 3 percent of a standard deviation, but they grow larger by age fifteen/sixteen, reaching 9 percent of a standard deviation, and are largest at age twenty-seven at around one-third of a standard deviation. In the case of literacy, girls have a large advantage at age nine/ten (around 22 percent of a standard deviation), which grows larger by age fifteen/sixteen (28 percent of a standard deviation). However, at age twenty-six/twenty-seven, the advantage shrinks to essentially zero, as young men surprisingly then have a non-statistically significant advantage of 13 percent of a standard deviation. Multiple robustness checks confirm the validity of their results in various ways. Most of these findings also hold true in the United States, although numeracy gaps in favor of boys are even larger.
The authors dig into potential mechanisms that may explain their results. First, they look at various gender equality measures with the idea that more gender-equal countries would see gaps evolve in a way more favorable to women. But that hypothesis is not borne out in the data. They also hypothesize that the increase in the numeracy gap from age fifteen to twenty-seven could be related to choices concerning post-secondary education—and are able to show that controlling for STEM-related careers does indeed reduce the size of the gap by half. As for literacy, reading and writing skills do not differ relative to whether a student pursues a STEM career. One potential reason? Literacy skills are more universal, so perhaps men are able to develop them on the job and catch up with women.
The study resurfaces a deeply entrenched issue in education: How can we increase the math competency of girls in the elementary years so that we prevent gaps from opening in the first place? Because once opened, they are increasingly hard to close later in life (as is the case with so many other gaps). It is good news that adult males tend to catch up on the literacy front. Likewise that coordinated efforts to develop accessible career pathways for women in the sciences (and more specifically, coding) have taken off in the last decade. But there is so much more to be done.
Francesca Borgonovi, Alvaro Choi, and Marco Paccagnella, “The evolution of gender gaps in numeracy and literacy between childhood and young adulthood,” Economics of Education Review (June 2021).