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Are women under-represented in high-power careers due to school curriculum?

Danish research has indicated that women may be under-represented in high-powered careers in areas such as business and science because of the inflexibility of school curriculums.

The study has found that teenage girls tend to resist signing up for advanced maths courses and qualifications. This is not because of a lack of ability or lack of reward, but the inflexibility in courses and the curriculum. This is an issue for women in their careers, as the study also found that students who did take advanced maths earned 30% more on average in careers than those who did not, and achieved more in those careers.

The paper, published in the June 2016 Economic Journal, is based on an analysis following the education and careers of three groups of students who started high school in 1984-86. The study randomly allowed students to take a more flexible combination of advanced maths and other courses rather than a restrictive bundle of courses.

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Whilst only one in 10 girls picked advanced maths before the pilot scheme, this doubled after the initiative was introduced. More boys also chose these courses, rising from four in 10 to half of the sample. Only the girls with the highest abilities chose maths, while boys who had a lower ability were willing to pick it. The study suggests that more girls would gain in the longer term of their career path from taking advanced maths, and more could be encouraged to do so by introducing further flexibility into the curriculum.

"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 in top careers," the paper says.

The researchers, Juanna Schroter Joensen, of Stockholm School of Economics and the University of Chicago, and Helena Skyt Nielsen, of Aarhus University, also say: "If girls choose advanced maths and science courses in school, they are paid as much as comparable male colleagues in the same careers with 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."

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