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PISA 2022: Gender gap in Estonia and Finland – from school to work pay

PISA 2022 gender gap in mathematics in Estonian and Finland.
PISA 2022 gender gap in mathematics in Estonian and Finland. Source: Graphics: Kristina Kersa

Estonia leads Europe in both the widest gender pay gap, which worsened last year, reversing a decade of progress, and in best math skills among 15-year-olds. Our neighbor Finland, however, managed to entirely reverse the gender gap in mathematics – it is the only country worldwide with a mean score above the OECD average where girls outperform boys.

In Estonia, boys outperformed girls in mathematics by 6 score points, which is consistent with the average global data. Across OECD countries boys outperformed girls on average by 9 score points in 2022.

Our neighbor to the north, Finland, showed a very different result, with girls scoring 5 points more than boys in mathematics.

Estonia's PISA results are the absolute top in Europe and among highest worldwide, but Finland is the absolute top in Europe, and worldwide, in being the only country among countries/economies with a mean score in mathematics above the OECD average, where girls surpass boys in mathematics.

Reversing the gap, as in Finland, is not ideal, but it makes one thing clear – gender gap in schooling is a social construct.

The widest gaps among the EU countries in mathematics in favor of boys, 15 score points or more, were in Austria and Italy.

The widest gaps in favor of girls globally, 15 score points or more, were in Palestinian Authority and Albania.

Not an innate ability

Fairness in schooling means that learning potential is unaffected by gender – a circumstance over which students have no control, but PISA tests over the decades show that gender stereotypes ensue.

Both Estonia and Finland have progressive European school systems, aimed at personalized approach and contemporary methods of teaching – we are also close geographically and linguistically. But still our peculiar social and cultural settings reinforce stereotypical thinking that in turn lead to differences in how children do in schools.

The disparities in gender gap are particularly sharp when looking at the 10th percentile of students who have achieved highest and lowest scores.

In Israel, Italy and the United States, the highest-performing boys did better than the highest-performing girls in mathematics by more than 30 score points.

There is no country in 2022 where the share of top performers in mathematics is larger among girls than boys.

Regardless of how well an education system is designed, for example, Estonia's top performing system or Japan's, the only country in the world where the result showed an upward trend in this round of assessment – in practice, even such education systems still create privileges or barriers that allow some students to perform better than others.

Gender is only one circumstance over which student have no control – others would be student's socio-economic background and immigrant status. Estonia has traditionally showed alarming results in both of those other factors.

For example, in mathematics, the average difference in performance between immigrant and non-immigrant students was 25 score points in favor of non-immigrant students.

From school gender gap to gender pay gap

Clearly, countries like Estonia or Japan do something right to show excellent test results, but Estonia is an absolute top in Europe persistently for decades also in another metrics – the "unexplained" gender pay gap.

The gap in schooling rolls on to manifest in future in life, not only in career options and picking the right path, but also in general sense of well-being and flourishing.

The under-representation of girls among top math students can partly explain the persistent gender gap in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields which are often among the highest-paying jobs.

Stereotypes result in girls more likely than boys to feel anxious about mathematics

PISA survey shows that girls already by age 15 are less likely than boys to believe they can successfully perform mathematics and science tasks at designated levels, to enroll in technical and vocational programs or gain "hands-on" experience in potential careers through internships or job shadowing, which culminates in lesser paid jobs in the future.

Gender-related disparities in achievement thus appear to be neither innate nor inevitable, but have devastating effects of person's overall feeling of safety, professional and personal flourishing.

Teenage girls in Estonia show the steepest hike from the age 13 to 15 in terms of feeling anxious about their performance in school and overall feeling of satisfaction and well-being.

The gender pay gap in Europe

Estonia has had highest gender pay gap in Europe for decades, but even though it has been in absolute top in terms of widest gender pay gap, the progress in the last several decades was towards closing the gap.

Statistics Estonia reported that Estonia jumped nearly 10 years back in 2022 in terms its progress in closing the gap – back to its figures from 2014, essentially erasing the slow, but positive progress of the last decade.

The gender pay gap in the EU stands at 12.7 percent (measured in 2021) and has only changed minimally over the decade. This means that women earn 13 percent on average less per hour than men. In Estonia this figure is 17 percent.

Why do women earn less?

The gender pay gap is a broader concept than pay discrimination. It includes a large number of inequalities women face in access to work, progression and rewards. Many of which are ingrained in schooling.

  • Occupational pay gap: Around 24 percent of the gender pay gap is related to the over-representation of women in relatively low-paying sectors, such as care, health, and education. Highly feminized jobs tend to be systematically undervalued.
  • Unequal share of paid and unpaid work: Women have more work hours per week than men but they spend more hours on unpaid work, a fact that might also affect their career choices.
  • The glass ceiling: The position in the hierarchy influences the level of pay: less than one in ten of top companies' CEOs are women. Nevertheless, the profession with the largest differences in hourly earnings in the EU were managers: 23 percent lower earnings for women than for men.

Unexplainable pay discrimination: In some cases, women earn less than men for doing equal work or work of equal value even if the principle of equal pay is enshrined in the European Treaties since 1957.

The largest part of the gender pay gap remains unexplained in the EU and is not linked to objective worker or workplace parameters such as education, occupation, working time or economic activity the person works for.

Estonia's one of the largest gender wage gaps in Europe is linked to individual bargaining, the researchers explain. Women in Estonia are disadvantaged in salary negotiations due to the absence of trade unions, collective bargaining agreements, and the treatment of salaries as confidential information.

Consequently, Estonia's gender pay gap widens on year as employers "legally capitalize."

More transparency in pay would help uncover unjustified gender-based pay differences for equal work or work of equal value and help victims of pay discrimination to seek redress and enforce their equal pay right.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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