Numeracy and literacy skills have become increasingly important in modern labour markets. The large gender differences that several studies have identified have therefore sparked considerable attention among researchers and policy makers. Little is known about the moment in which such gaps emerge, how they evolve and if their evolution differs across countries.
We use data from large-scale international assessments to follow representative samples of birth-cohorts over time, and analyse how gender gaps in numeracy and literacy evolve from age 10 to age 27. Our results suggest that, across the countries examined, males’ advantage in numeracy is smallest at age 10 and largest at age 27. The growth in magnitude of the gender gap is particularly pronounced between the age of 15 and 27. Such evolution stands in sharp contrast with the evolution of the gender gap in literacy, which is small at age 10, large and in favour of females at age 15, and negligible by age 27.
In this paper we set out to examine the evolution of gender gaps in numeracy and literacy from childhood to early adulthood. We hypothesised that males’ advantage in numeracy and females’ advantage in literacy would become progressively more pronounced between age 10 and 27.
The results presented in this paper suggest that gender gaps in information processing skills evolve very differently across the two domains. Analyses of achievement data from large-scale international assessments reveal that boys have a higher mean performance in numeracy at age 10 and that this advantage grows larger over time. By contrast, girls appear to have an initial advantage in literacy that grows larger between age 10 and age 15, but then disappears as soon as individuals enter young adulthood. While large differences between countries exist in the size of the gender gaps in literacy and numeracy at particular age groups, there is a remarkable level of consistency across countries in how gender gaps evolve over the lifecycle.
At this stage, only some suggestive explanations for these patterns can be put forward. The existence of gender gaps at age 9/10 could be linked to both social gender roles and to differences in psychological traits, as well as in timing of cognitive and emotional development. As children grow and enter the teenage years, they are subjected to a set of stimuli that are likely to differ by gender.
Increasing gender gaps in numeracy are then consistent with a greater specialisation of men in fields of studies and/or occupations that make more intensive use of numeracy skills. Indeed, women are under-represented in STEM education in most OECD countries (DiPrete and Buchmann, 2013). As a consequence, gender segregation is then reproduced in the labour market, where men occupy more frequently jobs which allow them to apply and develop their numeracy competencies (Sassler et al., 2017). The narrowing of gender gaps in literacy can instead be explained by the fact that literacy is a more transversal skills that everybody is called to master in order to succeed in education and in the labour market, irrespective of the chosen field of study or occupation.
Future research should focus on disentangling the underlying causes of these descriptive patterns. In particular, differences in the design of different surveys can contribute to the results.
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