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Oh boy! The new gender gap in school and work

The British Economists quotes deans of prestigious schools and universities, all worried about one trend: teenage boys are being left behind by girls. In the past, it was girls who left school early and did not go to university, but in just a couple of generations, this gender gap has closed – only for another to open up.


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The reversal is laid out in a report published by the OECD. 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.

Girls’ educational dominance persists after school. Women’s enrolment in university has increased almost twice as fast as men’s. In the OECD women now make up 56 per cent of students enrolled, up from 46 per cent in 1985.

Women who go to university are more likely than their male peers to graduate, and typically get better grades. Policymakers in many countries already worry about the prospect of a growing underclass of ill-educated men. That should worry women, too: in the past they have typically married men in their own social group or above. If there are too few of those, many women will have to marry down or not at all.

A recent paper in the American Economic Review found that the difference between the hourly earnings of highly qualified men and their female peers grows hugely in the first 10 to15 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. Where such jobs are common, for example in business and the law, the gender pay gap remains wide and even short spells out of the workforce are severely penalised, meaning that motherhood can exact a heavy price. Where pay is roughly proportional to hours worked, as in pharmacy, it is low.

There will always be jobs where flexibility is not an option, such as CEOs, trial lawyers, surgeons, some bankers and senior politicians. In many others, pay does not need to depend on being available all hours – and well-educated men who want a life outside work would benefit from change, too. But the new gender gap is at the other end of the pay spectrum. And it is not women who are suffering, but unskilled men.

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