Gender segregation in higher education: an empirical test of seven explanations

Abstract

Gender segregation in higher education (GSHE) is recognized as a key factor to explain the persistence of gender inequalities in the labor market despite the reversal of gender gap in educational attainment. Women are systematically overrepresented in fields of study, such as social sciences and the humanities, which offer relatively poor labor market prospects; at the same time, they are underrepresented in fields that perform above the average, as engineering and ICT. Several explanations for GSHE have been proposed in the literature, but their explanatory power has to be assessed yet. Using a rich longitudinal dataset on a recent cohort of Italian upper secondary school leavers, in this paper we jointly test seven potential mechanisms for GSHE. Our results show that rational choice explanations—such as skill-based explanations and gender differences in career preferences—fail to account for GSHE. On the contrary, expressive motivations related to preferences for school subjects and for specific occupations are found to mediate to a significant extent GSHE. However, our most important result concerns the key role of curricular track choice at upper secondary level which, alone, mediates two third of the gender difference in access to the humanities and social sciences and one third of the gender difference in access to engineering and ICT.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We employ a restrictive definition of “social sciences” that refers only to sociology, political science, and communication studies, but not to law nor economics. It may be noted that sociology and communication studies are female-dominated, while political science is not. Similarly, girls dominate university programs in business, while boys are overrepresented in economics. More generally, fine-grained distinctions within broad field categories shed light on subtler forms of gender segregation that we cannot consider in this work.

  2. 2.

    For the USA, there is evidence that also extra-curricular activities may contribute to GSHE (Legewie and DiPrete 2012, 2014).

  3. 3.

    The national bureau for school testing (INVALSI) carries out regular assessments of students’ skills, but their individual-level results are not communicated to the teachers, nor to the families.

  4. 4.

    This survey was part of a broader experimental study that included 31 additional schools where the research team developed a counseling intervention targeting all senior students. For this reason, these schools were excluded from the analyses. There is no evidence of contamination between treated and control schools (Barone et al. 2017).

  5. 5.

    The original data were recorded using an open format and then recoded into the two-digit Isced classification for field of study, which served as basis for the aggregations reported in the text.

  6. 6.

    Another hypothesis that we cannot test with our data is that GSHE reflects anticipated discrimination in university or at the workplace (Polachek 1978), but the evidence in this respect is generally not supportative (Mastekaasa and Smeby 2008).

  7. 7.

    In Italian high schools, boys still slightly outperform girls in math at standardized tests in grade 10 (Invalsi 2017), but at any given level of performance in these tests girls obtain higher grades (Argentin and Triventi 2016). To repeat, students, parents, and teachers do not have access to the individual results of these standardized tests; therefore, the only ability signal that families receive refers to grades.

  8. 8.

    This is the standard measure for overall school performance before tracking in Italy.

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Barone, C., Assirelli, G. Gender segregation in higher education: an empirical test of seven explanations. High Educ 79, 55–78 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00396-2

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Keywords

  • Gender segregation
  • Higher education
  • Field of study choice