Closing the Gender Gap

Welcome to 2013.  I didn’t switch off Paula completely, but steered clear of blogging etc.  One xmas party conversation led to an interesting hypothesis:  that male CEOs  who have daughters will get it (the PP, that is, or gender issues generally) , but won’t if they don’t.   The reason my cocktail acquaintance gave for her idea is that those with no children won’t get it anyway, and those with sons will think that no one can combine professional work with children, because sons take up so much organisational energy.  Only those with daughters will see that work and parenting can be combined with (relative) ease if things are sensibly managed.   She was from the banking sector (and had two daughters – and a CEO who only has sons).   In principle we should be able to test this out:  I wonder if anyone knows of research on organisational behaviour which includes daughter-parenting as a variable?

Anyway, I’ve been going through the OECD report Closing the Gender Gap , published just before Xmas.  It’s a rich mine of comparative information, and sensible policy advice, very helpfully laid out.  Most of it focusses primarily on OECD countries, unsurprisingly, but  there’s a lot here also on poorer countries.  There some sharp regional contrasts, for example between MENA (Mediterannean and North Africa) and Asian countries.  It’s fascinating to speculate how far these countries will follow the pathways of the original OECD industrialised world when it comes to education.

For this blog, I’ll just pick out a few of the report’s plums, which invite reflection and explanation.  North European countries have above average female/male differences in reading scores, according to the PISA research.  The gender reading gap is biggest amongst lower performers:  in this group, boys lag 49 points behind girls, compared with a  mere 27 point gap amongst the highest performers.    So we can see an increasingly fan-shaped pattern, or increasing inequality, cutting across the gender differences.

Still on education,  we’ve always known that computing is one of the exceptions of women outdoing men educationally, and few women study computing at university.  But women’s share of computing graduates actually dropped between 2000 and 2009, from about 22% to 20% as an OECD average.  (The biggest  drop, interestingly, was in Sweden.) The report, in one of its few absent-minded moments, says that this was ‘due to a rise in male shares’ – hardly an explanation! I assume  means that more men enrolled, but women’s numbers stayed flat – though we still need an explanation for that.     But the important point for me is that the trend shows how there is no steady progress, in this case in correcting subject imbalances.

The overall  gap in HE  is pretty clear and universal.  In 1985 the average across OECD countries of the female share of students was 46%, and by 2006 it was 54%.  But here’s a projection that is less familiar: by 2025 – not so far away now – of current trends continue there will be an average of 1.4 female students for every male one.  And in the UK, along with Austria, Canada , Iceland and Norway there will be almost twice as many women as men.   That’s some shift in the shape of the graduate supply.

On the employment front OECD has much to say of particular relevance to the PP.  It notes that all this decade’s progress towards closing the gender pay gap occurred before 2005.  Since then, things have pretty much stalled on this front.  Another warning that there is no inevitability of progress – Whigs go home.      But there are two particular items which caught my eye.

First, only 3% of European women who have worked part-time for up to 6 years subsequently go on to work full-time.  I have to say I find this hard to believe.  But if it is the case, it hugely reinforces the need to look at part-time careers.  And the report gives due attention to part-timers, with a strong set of policy messauges, including promoting part-time work as a temporary rather than permanent solution to work and care issues.

Secondly, it recognises that public policies for increasing work-life balance may inadvertently have the effect of increasing inequalities, as women take advantage of maternity leave, flexible working and so on, at the expense of their future careers.  The key conclusion from this, which emerged more and more clearly to me as I read on, is the need for a full lifecourse approach.  This does not look only at the obvious key juncture of having children – important though that is – but at how things work out over time.

I think this is a really difficult issue which maybe needs a lot more attention.  The report quotes Shirley Dex’s work, which rightly argues that policies need to focus on the points where men are most open to change.  The obvious example is when they become fathers – hence the importance of paternity leave.  But I’m very curious what people think are possible other key points.   Entry into the Third Age maybe (not the same as retirement…)?

In this context it is very welcome and entirely appropriate that the report brings in the pension dimension.  Pensions inequality dwarfs the gender pay gap:  in Europe women’s pensions are on avereage 34% lower than men’s and in the US, for public pensions, it is 40%.   This gap goes on for decades, and of course there’s nothing women can do abut it once they are into the pension.   The OECD rightly says that pension ages must be equalised, and confronts the questions of women working longer.   I’d add that longer working lives offer more of an opportunity for careers to be further developed after pauses, or part-time phases, typically for  child-rearing.

Talking of which, and to conclude, my eyes nearly popped out of my head yesterday.  I was reading a bunch of research proposals as a member of a European Research Council evaluation panel.  There is specific provision for applicants to let panel members know if they have had career interruptions of experiences which might affect our judgement of their career trajectory.  One application for a large research project came from a woman who added in that she had had 5 children. Since 2004.  None of them twins.  The last one in 2012.   I know that the superwoman tag has its downsides, and she may have a squad of nannies, but the mere fact of application impresses me.


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