Girls shy away from courses in advanced mathematics at school – and this explains a substantial part of the underrepresentation of women in high-powered careers as chief executives and more generally in finance, business, science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). That is the central conclusion of a new study by Juanna Schrøter Joensen and Helena Skyt Nielsen, published in the June 2016 Economic Journal.

The two economists argue that neither lack of ability nor lack of rewards discourage girls from taking advanced maths courses. Instead, access is deterred by too restrictive bundling of courses. This can be rectified, they say:

”Changing the learning environment and designing the curriculum to identify and foster girls with high mathematical abilities would attract more girls and reduce the gender pay gap.

”This may even be good for the economy as a whole as attracting the most talented individuals to STEM careers is considered crucial for sustaining economic development, growth, productivity and innovation.”

Joensen and Nielsen analyse Danish administrative data for three cohorts of school students whose education and labour market careers have been followed for 21 years after they started high school in 1984-86. The study is based on a pilot scheme that unexpectedly and randomly allowed for a more flexible combination of advanced maths with other courses.

Only one out of ten girls chose advanced maths before the pilot scheme, but this fraction doubled after it was introduced. The fraction also increased for boys: from four out of ten to half choosing maths. These advanced maths qualifications provided the basis for more successful careers: 30% higher earnings on average and higher career achievements.

For girls and boys with identical abilities, the earnings gains from studying maths are equal. But the fact that only the girls of highest ability choose maths while boys of lower ability also choose maths means that there is a considerable fraction of girls who would gain from choosing maths. The study suggests that this lost pool of talent could be retrieved by further increasing curriculum flexibility.

More generally, Joensen and Nielsen note, there is scope for improving young women”s maths qualifications and closing the gender gap by understanding why and how educational environments differ in the costs of achieving advanced maths qualifications: how is maths taught? How is it marketed? And how is it bundled with other courses?

Girls are innately as talented mathematicians as boys, the researchers conclude:

”If girls choose advanced maths and science courses in school, they are paid as much as comparable male colleagues for these qualifications.

”But somehow the costs embedded in the educational environment discourage girls from going for these qualifications – despite them being paid well for doing so.”

”Mathematics and Gender: Heterogeneity in Causes and Consequences” by Juanna Schrøter Joensen and Helena Skyt Nielsen is published in the June 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Juanna Schrøter Joensen is at the Stockholm School of Economics and the University of Chicago. Helena Skyt Nielsen is at Aarhus University.

Helena Skyt Nielsen


Juanna Schrøter Joensen

Juanna.Joensen@hhs.se or JJoensen@UChicago.edu