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Lost female talents in pursuit of higher education

New study sheds light on gender-specific differences in higher education goals and expectations.

A woman sits at a desk with a laptop and writes with a pencil on a tablet

In many industrialised countries, the participation of women in higher education has increased significantly and even surpassed men’s enrollment. In some countries such as Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland and Switzerland, however, it is noticeable that a relatively large number of young women who would actually be eligible for higher education decide not to study. In the current discussion paper "Lost Female Talent: Gender Differences in College Aspirations and Expectations in Germany", WiSo Professor Marita Jacob (Institute of Sociology and Social Psychology (ISS)), Melinda Erdmann and Marcel Helbig (Berlin Social Science Center (WZB)) shed light on this complex topic.

For the study, Marita Jacob and her colleagues interviewed 1766 high school students in their penultimate year before graduation (Abitur). It turned out that women and men generally pursue higher education with the same enthusiasm. Overall, it was found that boys were even less likely to intend to pursue higher education than girls.

Although many young women aspire to study, they are more pessimistic than men that they will actually realize their wish to study. Among other factors, young women were deterred by formal access restrictions to subjects in which they were primarily interested. For example, there are high entry requirements for medicine, psychology or law. Young women's greater pessimism is despite the fact that, on average, women get better grades than men, which should give them a competitive edge. The first "leak" in the academic career thus occurs even before enrollment, when young women underestimate their potential chances.

In order to enable more talented young women in Germany to realise their academic ambitions and to counteract the phenomenon of "lost talents", the researchers particularly advise forming initiatives to support young women and men in pursuing their goals.

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