Members' Research Service By / March 4, 2015

Women and education in the EU

Written by Ulla Jurviste, Martina Prpic, Eulalia Claros Gender equality in education is guaranteed by law in EU Member States,…

2012 graduates - Bachelors’ or Masters’ degrees (EU 28)
Written by Ulla Jurviste, Martina Prpic, Eulalia Claros

Gender equality in education is guaranteed by law in EU Member States, so the issues are far more complex than simply that of gaining access to education for girls, as remains the problem in many developing countries. Yet despite the legal equality in the EU, inequalities persist because of the educational choices that girls make, which may prevent them from achieving the potential they show earlier in education. Moreover, care needs to be taken not to ignore the problem of low-performing boys, a phenomenon sometimes overshadowed by the successes of men generally. The rationale for gender differences in education has mainly been approached from two perspectives: that of biological differences and that of societal and cultural influences. In the past, the view that biological differences are the cause of different educational outcomes was prevalent, but more recently there has been a shift towards the other side of the spectrum. The latest research shows that the differences between males and females are not sufficiently significant to account for the differences in educational outcome.

Differences between boys’ and girls’ results in PISA tests

The PISA tests have been effective in showing differences in results between girls and boys in reading, science and mathematics. Administered on a sample of 15-year olds from more than 70 countries, with the same methodology in each, the results show differences in these three fields up to a point. In all EU Member States, girls significantly outperform boys in reading, whereas boys are slightly better than girls in mathematics in most. In science, the results generally do not show significant differences in performance between girls and boys.

It is interesting to note that research shows that better performance by students need not correlate with gender equality in society, with female students performing better in countries such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, this same research also shows that even though male students on average fall behind female students in overall achievement, the top performers among male students have higher level of achievement than the top performers among female students, which may be one explanation for their higher levels of professional success later in life.

Different choices in education

The relative underperformance of girls in mathematics at 15 years old is reflected later in their choices of fields of study in higher (tertiary) education. As the graphs on the following page show, there are far fewer female than male graduates in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Women are more likely to choose fields such as education or the arts. This potentially leads to problems because feminisation of certain professions, such as teaching, can lead to reduced prestige of the profession and lower wages.

But why do men and women make these different choices? There have been a number of explanations over the years. According to some research, these choices may even be explained by the results in the PISA tests, as it may be that boys and girls go on to choose to specialise in those fields in which they are already comparatively better. In general, explanations for different choices of study field by gender can be grouped into several categories. Some explain different choices through differences in abilities between the two genders, where males and females have different educational outcomes because of inherent biological characteristics. Other reasons put forward are societal and cultural, and encompass differences in motivation and support for various choices, the influence of gender stereotypes and conflict between the feminine gender role and the choice of certain fields, such as mathematics or physics, which are considered as male domains, and a lack of female role models in stereotypically male fields. Research on gender stereotypes has been particularly illuminating on the issue, because it has unveiled how much teachers, curricula and textbooks perpetuate gender stereotypes, rather than try to put a stop to them.

However, the problem with educational choices does not stop with the choice of study fields. Women are less prone to continuing studying at PhD level as the graphs show. This is also reflected later in the lack of female scientists and professors at tertiary level. The graphs on the final page also show lower employment rates for female graduates than male graduates in general.


The data presented show the complexity of the issue of gender equality in education. An important element that is not touched upon is how gender interacts with other categories, such as migrant or socio-economic status. The issue of low-performing boys is also an important topic for discussion. The debate continues, but it is evident that merely giving access to girls to education and raising their educational achievement has not completely resolved the issue.

Download this infographics on ‘Women and education in the EU’ in PDF.

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