Explaining gender segregation in higher education: longitudinal evidence on the French case

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This article asks why gender gaps persist in higher education even though women’s attainment is higher than men’s across the OECD, and even though gender gaps at work are narrowing.

Women are still under-represented in subjects such as engineering and computing, and over-represented in human sciences and humanities.

The article tests a number of theories on this, including ability difference in school, teacher bias, parental bias, curricular differentiation, difference in career ambitions and gendered occupational aspirations. It also suggests peer effects and the anticipation of possible discrimination might be at play, but does not test these.

The results, based on a nationally representative panel survey of students in France, show little effect for ability differences, teacher or parental bias or career ambitions .

The authors conclude the strongest explanation for these persistent gender differences is ‘a gradual, soft process of curricular differentiation,’ which pushes pupils towards subject areas in which their gender is dominant. This is likely to be strongest in school systems with formal tracking, they say.