Considering the Educational Gender Gap

September 16, 2021

Students in classroom, girls with hands up, boys with heads on desk

In developed countries around the world, young men have lower levels of educational attainment, which leads to negative employment and social outcomes. This is a pattern Shelly Lundberg will examine further in the upcoming Department of Economics Distinguished Lecture, titled “Educational Gender Gaps.”

Lundberg is the Leonard Broom Professor of Demography and Associate Director of the Broom Center for Demography, and Distinguished Professor of Economics at UC Santa Barbara. Her research has focused on the economics of family behavior and the determinants of inequality. She has contributed to the economics of discrimination and to the modeling of resource allocation and bargaining within households. Her current research examines the sources of educational inequality and of gender gaps in education.

Researchers know about differences in educational attainment: girls are less likely to enter STEM fields, while boys are less likely to continue education past secondary school. The difference in educational attainment has existed in the United States since about 1990, and has occurred in most developed and middle-income countries. This pattern seems to be set early in life, with girls being more likely to say they are planning to go to college than boys.

“Educational aspirations, however they are created, appear to be really important, and a force independent of the grades they are getting or how they behave in school. We don’t know much about what generates those attitudes and the desire to go on in school,” said Lundberg.

“This is economically devastating for men,” she said. “They were falling behind in college graduation and attendance at same time that bottom was falling out of labour market for high-school educated workers.”

Lower educational levels for men undermines their ability to get better paying jobs, and these negative job outcomes are also correlated with lower family formation and household stability.

Lundberg said that many studies have shown the avoidance of STEM fields by females is impacted by social pressures and influence from parents and peers, tied to ideas of gender identity and appropriate roles for women, but there have been fewer studies concerning educational attainment in boys.

Recognition that gender stereotypes lead to lower STEM participation by females provides an opportunity to work against those stereotypes. The same has not been true for males.

“Masculine identity concerns, focusing on autonomy and risk-taking, lead boys to develop negative attitudes to school,” said Lundberg. “Economists have been ignoring that story.”

“For economists, the majority of whom are men, the default economic agent is male, and often they do not think about what makes men act in a certain way,” she said. While other social science disciplines will consider the impact of masculinity, for economists, men are considered as ‘the normal’, and women deviate from that normal.

Lundberg said her paper, and the presentation, are a call for more research through this lens. “We could look at other social and economic issues through the lens of gender identity.”

Shelly Lundberg will deliver the Department of Economics Distinguished Lecture “Educational Gender Gaps” via Zoom on Tuesday, September 21, from 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

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