9. Gender differences in career expectations and feminisation of the teaching profession

Marta Encinas-Martín

Despite improved academic performance and positive trends in women’s overall participation in higher education (Chapter 8), gender gaps persist and remain wide as ever in the labour market. Gender stereotyping of jobs and occupations along with gendered roles in personal and professional life may lead to different career expectations for girls and boys and influence the decisions that perpetuate gender-related differences in the choice of studies and careers (OECD, 2016[1]).

On average across OECD countries, only 14% of girls who were top performers in science or mathematics reported that they expect to work as professionals in science or engineering while 26% of top-performing boys so reported. Such decisions can have negative consequences for women’s labour market prospects (OECD, 2019[2]).

Gender differences in career expectations of 15-year-old students are further mirrored in men’s and women’s field of study choices at the tertiary education level. Women’s under-representation in STEM fields is an issue of high policy relevance as countries seek to enhance skills for technological innovation. “Natural sciences, mathematics and statistics” is the only STEM field that has achieved gender parity: on average across OECD countries in 2020 women represented 52% of new entrants to that field in tertiary education, but there is considerable cross-country variation ranging from 27% in Japan to 63% in Poland (Figure 9.1). However, young men still dominate engineering and ICT fields of study, constituting 79% of new entrants in ICT and 74% in engineering, manufacturing and construction on average across OECD countries (OECD, 2022[3]).

In contrast, the gender imbalance reverses when it comes to care professions such as teaching and nursing. In 2020, women were still largely over-represented among new entrants in the fields of education or health and welfare (78% of new entrants on average across OECD countries). In some countries, more than four out of five new entrants to these fields are women. For example, in Italy and Latvia, women represent 90% or more of new entrants into the field of education and in Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania, women represent at least 82% of new entrants in the fields of health and welfare (OECD, 2022[3]).

Marked gender differences in the choices of the fields of study also inevitably shape the distribution patterns of those who graduate from these fields of study. While STEM is the predominant field of study for male graduates in 32 out of 37 countries with data available, women are more likely to graduate from the field of business, administration and law (23 out of 37 countries). Health and welfare is the second most common field of study for female graduates (predominant field of study in nine countries) (OECD, 2022[3]).

Already in their first years of life, children become affected by stereotypical expectations and norms based on their gender, which are passed down by parents, schools, teachers and other social institutions, such as the media, from early childhood until adolescence, and even later into adulthood (Brussino and McBrien, 2022[4]).

Gender norms and stereotypes that influence perceptions about the appropriate roles that men and women should play in society, and in the economic sphere, typically originate from home: parents harbour different expectations from their sons and daughters in terms of subject choices and careers (OECD, 2017[5]). Data from earlier PISA assessments (2012) shows that parents were more likely to expect their sons, rather than their daughters, to work in a STEM field – even when boys and girls performed equally well in mathematics and science (Schleicher, 2019[6]).

The existence of these gender stereotypes at home are carried forward in the classroom and are often related to teachers’ conscious or unconscious biases about girls’ and boys’ strengths and weaknesses in various subjects, which are invariably reflected in student performance (OECD, 2019[7]). This bias can also manifest itself in teaching methods, extracurricular activities, textbook choices. The role played by education systems in creating this bias further extends to areas such as media and culture.

Additionally, girls’ lack of confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science and their resultant low expectations to work in STEM careers could also be due to an absence of role models. The paucity of women scientists means that young girls have little in the way of tangible evidence to disprove the stereotypical notion that mathematics and science are somehow more “masculine” disciplines. PISA results show that few mothers of 15-year-olds, worldwide, work in STEM occupations; indeed, in all countries and economies there are far fewer women than men employed in these sectors (Encinas-Martín and Cherian, 2023[8]).

Over the past years and decades, countries have made important strides to make teachers more gender aware, teaching materials more gender neutral, and more girls motivated to study STEM subjects (Box 9.1). Career guidance is another relevant approach, as explained in Chapter 11.

While the under-representation of women in STEM fields is a matter of concern, it is also important to note that men are under-represented in the health and education sectors. For example, TALIS 2018 data show that, on average across OECD countries, the proportion of female teachers reaches 70%, with large differences across levels of education. Female teachers are especially overrepresented at lower levels of education. In 2020, 82% of primary teachers were women, compared to 63% at secondary level and 45% at tertiary level on average across OECD countries. The share of female primary teachers ranges from 64% in Japan and Türkiye to 97% in Lithuania (OECD, 2022[3]) (Figure 9.2).

Between 2010 and 2020, the share of female teachers has stagnated at primary and secondary levels on average across OECD countries (83% in 2010 and 2020 at primary level and about 64% in 2010 to 63% in 2020 at secondary level). Thus, the gender balance has not improved between 2010 and 2020. The share of female teachers has continued to grow also at the tertiary level (from 42% in 2010 to 45% in 2020), still far from a gender-equal representation. As of 2020, female teachers made up more than 50% of teachers in only six out of the 36 countries with available data (Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, New Zealand and the United States) (OECD, 2022[3]).

Imbalanced gender ratios among primary and secondary teachers are due to several factors. Historically, teaching has been one of the few skilled professions that has been accessible for women because it closely fitted the traditional stereotype of women as caregivers of children. While such gender stereotypes are less prevalent today than they were a few decades ago in many OECD countries, they might still be an important reason for the high share of female teachers, particularly at lower levels of education.

Teaching is also an attractive career option for working mothers because it provides the flexibility to combine working and parenting responsibilities. Teachers in many countries have considerable flexibility in organising their non-teaching working hours. For example, in 24 out of 31 OECD countries and economies with available data, teachers at the lower secondary level can spend part or all of their non-teaching working time outside of school premises (OECD, 2019[15]). Ideally, this should make teaching similarly attractive to working fathers, but in many countries child rearing responsibilities still fall predominantly on women’s shoulders (Craig and Mullan, 2011[16]). Teaching also lends itself to part-time work, which can equally help to combine working and parenting duties. One in five lower secondary teachers in OECD countries are employed part-time (OECD, 2020[17]).

TALIS 2018 data reveals a widespread disillusionment among teachers with the perception of teaching in society. On average across the OECD, only one in four teachers (25.8%) considers their profession as valued by society (OECD, 2020[17]). This contributes to difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers. One in three teachers (33.8%) considers that it would have been better to choose another profession than teaching (OECD, 2020[17]). More than one in eight teachers aged 50 or below (14.1%) expresses the intention to leave teaching within the next five years (OECD, 2020[17]), with no major differences between male and female teachers. However, the attrition rate, which measures the proportion of teachers permanently leaving the teaching profession, is lower for female teachers (in pre-primary to upper secondary) than for their male colleagues in 10 out of 11 countries with available data (OECD, 2021[18]).

Differences in relative wage levels between men and women are another factor contributing to imbalanced gender ratios among teachers. Teaching is one of the few professions where women do not face wage discrimination. On average across OECD countries, most of the primary (87%) and lower secondary (84%) teachers teach in public schools (OECD, 2021[19]), where salaries are determined by statutory salary scales or are agreed through collective bargaining in most OECD countries. Within each country, salaries differ across teachers by a number of factors (e.g. the level of education taught, the qualification level, and the level of experience or career stage), but they are not affected by gender. Because of these standardised wage setting processes, actual salaries of male and female teachers are nearly identical on average across OECD countries (OECD, 2021[18]). However, this implies that career tracks outside of teaching are financially more attractive for men – reinforcing already existing horizontal segregation (OECD, 2022[12]).

A better balance between female and male staff in education could benefit all students, for instance by contributing to students developing positive gender identities and challenging biased views. Moreover, it could contribute to tackle labour shortages. Some countries have made efforts to promote diversity in the teaching workforce (see Box 9.2).

While advancing STEM education appears to be a common objective in many countries, it remains unclear what approach is best suited to promoting STEM skills to further economic growth. Generally, proposals for reform of STEM education maintain that, because STEM subjects are so important, every student should be given the best-quality education in those subjects (Atkinson and Mayo, 2010[22]). Greater exposure to them, it is assumed, will prompt more young people to choose STEM careers. However, unless serious efforts are made to help students, particularly girls, overcome their anxiety about mathematics and their lack of confidence in their own science and mathematics abilities, then even the best STEM teaching will do nothing to narrow the gender gap in STEM studies and careers. Teachers and parents can help build girls’ confidence in their abilities in mathematics and science by evaluating their actual abilities – noting the tasks they can accomplish relatively easily and those with which they struggle. They can offer positive feedback on work well done and offer girls opportunities to “think like scientists” in low-stakes situations, where making mistakes does not affect marks (OECD, 2015[21]). Training teachers to recognise and address any biases they may hold about boys and girls will help them to teach more effectively so that students make the most of their potential.

In contrast, with respect to increasing male representation in the teaching profession, recognising teachers’ contribution to society could bring in more talent regardless of gender. Compensating teachers adequately is an obvious way of acknowledging the importance of the teaching profession, but it is not the only one. Other important mechanisms include the public recognition of the long hours that teachers work beyond their teaching time and the often-challenging work environments that they face. Giving teachers the means to do their job well, for example by providing well-equipped classrooms, is another important way of recognising the importance of the profession and of motivating teachers. These measures are important and should be implemented irrespective of gender considerations. However, they have the added benefit that they help to attract the best qualified candidates regardless of gender to the teaching profession and can thereby contribute to improving the gender balance among teachers.


[22] Atkinson, R. and M. Mayo (2010), Refuelling the U.S. Innovation Economy: Fresh Approaches to Science, technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, https://itif.org/files/2010-refueling-innovation-economy.pdf.

[4] Brussino, O. and J. McBrien (2022), “Gender stereotypes in education: Policies and practices to address gender stereotyping across OECD education systems”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 271, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/a46ae056-en.

[10] Council of Europe (2019), Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)1 of the Committee of Ministers to member States, https://rm.coe.int/cm-rec-2019-1e-sexism/1680a217ca.

[16] Craig, L. and K. Mullan (2011), “How Mothers and Fathers Share Childcare: A Cross-National Time-Use Comparison”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 76/6, pp. 834-861, https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122411427673.

[8] Encinas-Martín, M. and M. Cherian (2023), Gender, Education and Skills: The Persistence of Gender Gaps in Education and Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/34680dd5-en.

[13] Gender4STEM (2019), The learning by doing approach in the spotlight of Gender4STEM teaching assistant, https://www.gender4stem-project.eu/events/gender4stem-training-for-teachers/.

[14] GirlsInSTEM (2020), GirlsInSTEM, https://girlsinstem.eu/.

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[1] OECD (2016), Fields of education, gender and the labour market, Education Indicators in Focus, No. 45, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/5jlpgh1ppm30-en.

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[11] Rakesh, K. (2021), Kerala government to make school textbooks gender-neutral, https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/kerala-government-has-decided-to-audit-and-revise-school-textbooks-to-make-them-gender-neutral/cid/1820221.

[6] Schleicher, A. (2019), PISA 2018: Insights and Interpretations, OECD, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf.

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