While women have reached or surpassed the educational attainment of men, gender segregation across higher education fields has changed relatively little in recent years (Barone, 2011; England, 2006; Mann & DiPrete, 2013). Female students continue to choose fields within the arts and humanities while male students continue to be overrepresented in math, sciences and engineering. This gender specific pattern of field of study choices is consequential because it contributes to gender income gap (Bobbitt-Zeher, 2007; Kim, Tamborini, & Sakamoto, 2015; Ochsenfeld, 2014) – but also gender inequalities across other labour market outcomes such as unemployment or occupational attainment (Reimer & Steinmetz, 2009; Roksa, 2005). Comparative research can identify features of educational systems that are related to higher or lower levels of gender segregation across fields of study. However, only very few papers can be found that have systematically studied determinants of gender segregation in higher education in a cross country perspective (Charles & Bradley, 2009; Charles & Bradley, 2002). Research about the possible intersection between students’ social origin and gender segregation is even scarcer and to our knowledge, no paper has systematically studied whether the linkage between social origin and gender segregation in higher education varies systematically across different country contexts.
To this end the goal of this paper is to analyze to what extent and why levels of gender segregation in higher education fields vary across different social groups in a cross-country comparative perspective. We expect three mechanisms to produce differential gender effects by social origin: 1) socialization according to gender norms; 2) status maintenance; and 3) performance differentials:
1) Following socialization theories, we expect that levels of gender segregation in field of studies will be higher among offspring from lower social origins since higher origin females (or males) might be more prone to make more untraditional field choices (Helbig & Leuze, 2012). This socialization argument should hold in particular when it comes to preference building during adolescence. In a comparative perspective, we expect lower levels of gender segregation in countries with large class-based inequalities, as the upper classes represent a smaller portion of the population. 2) Based on the results of Charles and Bradley (2009) we expect higher levels of gender segregation in countries with higher levels of postindustrialism, female labor force participation and a larger tertiary sector. At the same time, gender-based decisions should be less pronounced in countries with relatively strong class-based inequalities, as the upper classes seek to secure the competitive advantage for sons and daughters likewise and thus guide them to traditional prestigious (male) fields of study. 3) Intergenerational transfer of cultural capital seems to be more important for reading and language skills than for MINT skills (e.g., Hansen/Mastekaasa 2006). Thus, higher class boys should have a smaller comparative advantage, compared to lower class boys, and higher class girls should have a higher comparative advantage, compared to lower class girls.
Taking these mechanisms together, we do expect a significant and relevant interaction between gender and social origin on choice of field-of-study. However, we do expect only moderate variation across countries. The comparative advantage mechanism should work similarly across countries. For socialization and status maintenance mechanisms, we expect limited variation due to different class structures in the observed countries.
Alonso-Villar, O., & del Río, C. (2010). Local versus overall segregation measures. Mathematical Social Sciences, 60(1), 30–38. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.mathsocsci.2010.03.002 Barone, C. (2011). Some Things Never Change: Gender Segregation in Higher Education across Eight Nations and Three Decades. Sociology of Education, 84(2), 157–176. doi:10.1177/0038040711402099 Bobbitt-Zeher, D. (2007). The Gender Income Gap and the Role of Education. Sociology of Education, 80(1), 1–22. Charles, M., & Bradley, K. (2002). Equal but Separate? A Cross-National Study of Sex Segregation in Higher Education. American Sociological Review, 67(4), 573–599. Charles, M., & Bradley, K. (2009). Indulging our Gendered Selves? Sex Segregation by Field of Study in 44 Countries. American Journal of Sociology, 114(4), 924–976. England, P. (2006). Desegregation Stalled: The Changing Gender Composition of College Majors, 1971-2002. Gender & Society, 20(5), 657–677. doi:10.1177/0891243206290753 Hansen, Marianne Nordli & Mastekaasa, Arne (2006). Social Origins and Academic Performance at University. European Sociological Review, 22, 277- 291. Helbig, M., & Leuze, K. (2012). Ich will Feuerwehrmann werden! KZfSS Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 64(1), 91–122. doi:10.1007/s11577-012-0154-9 Kim, C., Tamborini, C. R., & Sakamoto, A. (2015). Field of Study in College and Lifetime Earnings in the United States. Sociology of Education, 88(4), 320–339. doi:10.1177/0038040715602132 Mann, A., & DiPrete, T. a. (2013). Trends in gender segregation in the choice of science and engineering majors. Social Science Research, 42(6), 1519–1541. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2013.07.002 Ochsenfeld, F. (2014). Why Do Women’s Fields of Study Pay Less? A Test of Devaluation, Human Capital, and Gender Role Theory. European Sociological Review, 30(4), 536–548. doi:10.1093/esr/jcu060 Reimer, D., & Steinmetz, S. (2009). Highly Educated but in the Wrong Field? Educational Specialisation and Labour Market Risks of Men and Women in Spain and Germany in Higher Education. European Societies, 11(5), 723–746. Roksa, J. (2005). Double Disadvantage or Blessing in Disguise? Understanding the Relationship Between College Major and Employment Sector. Sociology of Education, 78(3), 207–232. Shavit, Y., Arum, R., & Gamoran, A. (2007). Stratification in Higher Education. A Comparative Study. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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