OECD Skills Survey: gender and the use of skills

The OECD survey of adult skills was published yesterday, and triggered a torrent of publicity. It’s a massive piece of work – 166000 people aged 16-65 interviewed across 24 countries, and directly tested on a variety of information-processing (literacy, numeracy, ICT etc) and generic (cooperation, problem-solving etc) competences. I know a little of just how much work went into getting this off the ground.

Most of the immediate attention in the UK was focussed on our poor ranking in literacy and numeracy. This is always the temptation when league table information is produced. It’s the aspect that journalists can most quickly get their pens on to, and we shouldn’t complain. But there is a treasure trove of other material there, and I hope that this will also be mined.

Some of it is easier to get your head round than others, and I need to spend more time on it. But as a quick first pass, here’s my Paula Principle take on the complex information in Ch 4 of the report, which deals with how far all of these skills are actually used in the workplace:

1. Overall there is not a lot of difference between men and women in the volume of skills they bring to the workplace. (Remember that this applies to an age-group which spans some 50 years, and we don’t yet have a breakdown of how this has changed over time, with younger women having higher qualifications).

2. Men generally use information-processing skills a little more than women. In the UK (here represented by England and Northern Ireland, as Scotland and Wales did not take part) there is not much difference between the sexes in their application of these skills, except in numeracy.

3. As for generic skills, again there’s not much difference, except for obvious reasons in the exercise of physical skills. In the UK, the only other generic skill where there is a difference is in task discretion.

4. Such differences as there are in the extent to which women and men use these skills seem to be largely a function of whether people are in part-time work or not. In other words the report provides heavy-duty support for the view that part-time workers have their skills under-utilised. You can imagine that from the PP viewpoint this gave me quite a boost, as I bang on about the centrality of part-time work.

5. Finally, the OECD stress that in order to understand the gender pay gap we need a more detailed understanding of the use of skills at work. Only in this way will we get a better match between supply and demand/utilisation. This may sound obvious – but it’s a big step forward, which has major implications for policy. The political rhetoric is still all around the supply side.

It’s not exactly fireside reading. But I hope people will look beyond the headlines. What we need is to explore this rich source of information – and relate it to our own specific context. That’s the value of comparative research.


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