How Gender Stereotypes Affect Women’s Higher Education and Career Choices

Article écrit et publié par le Programme EVE.


Since the mid-2000s, women have outnumbered men in higher educational attainment in nearly all OECD countries. However, men and women’s labor market outcomes remain substantially different. For instance, there is a persistent gender pay gap that starts right after graduation. Why do women keep earning less? There are several complementary explanations. One of the main reasons is that gender stereotypes unconsciously influence women’s (and men’s) higher educational choices.

For instance, gender stereotypes partly explain why women choose to earn degrees in fields that lead to lower paying jobs. Many of the higher paying jobs require degrees in one of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. In these fields, men continue to outnumber women. Research by economists Scott Carrell, Marianne Page and James West suggests that a lack of female role models is one of the reasons why women choose less often to major in STEM fields. Using data from the U.S. Air Force Academy, they show that female students who are assigned to female professors for their mandatory introductory courses in math and science tend to perform better and to persist longer in STEM fields compared to female students who are assigned to male professors. This is especially true for top-performing female students.

Gender stereotypes also define social roles. Two psychologists, Alice Eagly and Steven Karau established role congruity theory to explain how members of a group will be viewed more favorably if their behavior matches their group’s social roles. In their 2002 article, the authors explain how gender stereotypes shape how women and men are expected to behave: “Communal characteristics, which are ascribed more strongly to women, describe primarily a concern with the welfare of other people—for example, affectionate, helpful, kind, sympathetic, interpersonally sensitive, nurturant, and gentle. In contrast, agentic characteristics, which are ascribed more strongly to men, describe primarily an assertive, controlling, and confident tendency—for example, aggressive, ambitious, dominant, forceful, independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, and prone to act as a leader.”


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