Educational pathways – the route to a voluntary pay gap?

By Piers Lee

With debates raging over the male / female pay gap and under-representation of females in senior management, some conclude that these are the outcomes of patriarchal hierarchies. Others will claim that females are somehow conditioned at an early age by parents and society to follow different career paths. To assess some of these assumptions, BVA BDRC conducted a survey with parents sending children to international schools to determine the educational pathways they expect their children to take.

Based on the stated aspirations of 157 boys and 149 girls intending to go on to university, we see stark differences in the expected choices for university courses, essentially replicating what I saw at my own higher education establishment back in the 1980s.

Singapore Education Choices

This survey was conducted specifically among children who go to international schools in Singapore, including many Western and Asian nationalities.  Being some of the most privileged and liberated children in the world, in one of the most advanced, diverse, and well-integrated societies, these choices must be seen as being mostly free from outside interference. This ‘privilege’ will also allow them far more choices for universities by price and destination.

The survey shows that boys are far more inclined to follow science, technology, and mathematical subjects, whereas females are more likely to study creative subjects, media, humanities, and liberal arts. However, one area of the sciences that does stand out for girls is their greater interest in medicine, and indeed this is an area where females are excelling worldwide.

But the implications are that boys are far more likely to enter STEM-related industries (science, technology, engineering, and math). In contrast, girls will be more likely to work in people-related industries, e.g. communications, teaching, nursing, etc. Of course, these sectors are important to a diversified economy, but STEM industries tend to be far more scalable, with much higher salaries on offer compared to people-related sectors.

This creates challenges for companies who want to, or are required to, have minimum numbers of women on their boards of directors. In Norway, the law requires that 40% of board directors are made up of women, many of these industries in Norway being in STEM areas. Consider the challenge of some women choosing not to return to full-time employment after having children, then overlay on top of this far fewer women choosing to work in STEM industries.

However, I was recently involved in a research project in Singapore for one of the newer universities specializing in STEM subjects, where 40% of their students are female. In addition, STEM is broadening to a range of specialised subjects – courses like ‘environmental engineering’ attract more females, but the “traditional” STEM courses, e.g. mechanical engineering, remain predominantly male.

The broadening of STEM subjects and more joint honours degrees should attract more females into STEM industries who can then become role models and leaders for future generations.

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