Determinants of the emergence of gender-specific patterns of competencies and decision making over the educational career in Germany

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hans-Peter Blossfeld, University of Bamberg and European University Institute, Florence (IT)

Research staff:

Loreen Beier, University of Bamberg
Wilfred Uunk, University of Bamberg
Alessandra Minello, European University Institute, Florence (IT)

Project summary:
The patterns of competencies and educational decision making of boys and girls, as well as young men and women, seem to become increasingly heterogeneous over the educational career. Using an explicit life course perspective and longitudinal data from the NEPS and BiKS, this project (2012-2019) aimed to describe and analyze the stepwise formation and differentiation of gender-specific interests, competencies and decision making at crucial phases of educational careers and job trajectories. It has been part of the DFG Priority Programme 1646 “Education as a Lifelong Process”. In particular, we studied the development and dynamic interaction of gender-specific cognitive and social competencies, self-concepts, learning efforts, motivations and the educational decision making of families for their girls and boys, teachers for their students, as well as by young men and women themselves. We concentrated on the most important phases in German educational careers and job trajectories: (a) The preschool experiences in the kindergarten and the entry process into the school system; (b) the transition to secondary school; (c) the increasingly longer period of transition from secondary school to vocational training, and (d) the entry process into the institutions of higher education, and (e) the job entry and careers of women and men over successive birth cohorts.

Some selected research results
  1. Preschool age
    Starting at the earliest phase in the educational career, our analyses show that there are already gender differences in mathematical competencies at early preschool age, but against the usual expectations, in favour of girls. This gender gap could not be explained by previous maternal domain-specific stimulation in terms of numeracy and literacy. At age 6, however, this gender gap reverses to a kind of traditional gender pattern, with higher mathematical competences for boys. There is some evidence that this might be due to boys’ more favourable mathematical self-concepts at this age.

  2. Primary school and the transition to secondary school
    In primary school, the early gender-specific differences are then reinforced: Boys perform better in mathematics and girls in German language. Nevertheless, these relative advantages in each domain compensate for each other, so there are no significant differences in the overall performance. This finding potentially suggests that gender inequalities in educational outcomes in the German educational system should be manifest particularly in the horizontal stratification dimension. With regard to the transition to secondary school, in contrast to previous findings from research, we did not find that girls would be more likely to end up in academic tracks. The only difference we found is that boys have a higher probability for the transition to ‘Hauptschule’. Furthermore, our analysis provided evidence that in math, but not for German there is a wider gender gap in the performance among students from less advantaged backgrounds.

  3. Transition to vocational training or higher education and dropout intensions
    Concerning the transition from secondary school to vocational training or higher education there was some evidence from the data that among graduates, young women tend to opt more often for vocational training than young men, whereas the men more often choose to study at universities for applied science than women. We did not find gender differences regarding university entry: women do not aim lower with respect to university entry at similar grades than boys. However, a clear gender-specific differentiation appeared with regard to the field of study at university: Men more often choose a STEM major than women. Largely this gender gap can be explained by the girls' higher relative school achievement in languages than in math. Concerning dropout intentions in atypical fields of study, we could not identify a systematic pattern for students within different fields. This might be due to the fact, that students in these fields are a highly selective group. Furthermore, our analyses showed that the more significant others support the chosen subject the more the intentions to drop out decrease. However, the effects we found have not been as strong as we expected and the differences between males and females last on a low level, but the influences of significant others are in general stronger for male students than for females, especially in atypical fields of study.

  4. The role of mothers in their daughters’ educational and occupational career over cohorts
    Our results show the important role of mothers in shaping the level of education of their daughters. This plays a fundamental role in guaranteeing the chances of maternal-line mobility of daughters, especially among the young generations. We see an increased investment in middle and secondary education for daughters across cohorts. This change is evident when we regard daughters whose parents have low or medium education. When considering highly educated parents, our results demonstrate that when the mother has tertiary education, the daughter has a very high probability of getting a higher education as well, especially when looking at the younger birth cohort (1975–80). Because this is not the case when we take only fathers with tertiary education into consideration, we conclude that mothers with tertiary education tend to invest more in their daughters than fathers do. Moreover, younger and more educated daughters have greater chances than older and low educated ones of experiencing upward maternal-line intergenerational mobility and avoiding downward mobility. University degrees are, in fact, more and more important for young women living in Germany, because they are the main way to commence a decent job career in a position higher than that of their mothers.

In summary, based on our analyses the expected cumulative differences among boys and girls and men and women over the life course appear to be in accordance with the so-called Matthew effect hypothesis: small gender differences at preschool age are getting bigger over the school career, not so much with regard to competence trajectories but with regard to the chosen subjects in schools and fields of study at vocational training and tertiary education.

Selected Publications
  • Minello A. & Blossfeld H.-P. (2014). From mother to daughter: changes in intergenerational educational and occupational mobility in Germany. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 24(1), 65-84.

  • Minello A. & Blossfeld H.-P. (2014). From parents to children: the impact of mothers’ and fathers’ educational attainments on those of their sons and daughters in West Germany. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 2017, 38: 686-704, (online first:

  • Uunk, W.J.G., Beier, L. Minello, A., & Blossfeld, H.-P. (2019). Studienfachwahl MINT durch Frauen – Einfluss von Leistung in Mathematik, Lebenszielen und familialem Hintergrund. In: E. Schlemmer & M. Binder (Eds.): MINT oder Care? Eckpunkte einer gendersensiblen Berufsorientierung. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz/Juventa, pp.185-199.

  • Beier, L., Minello, A., Uunk, W.J.G., Pratter, M., Yastrebov, G,. & Blossfeld, H.-P. (forthcoming). The Emergence of Gender-Specific Competence Patterns and Decision Making Over the Educational and Job Career in Germany. In: S. Weinert & G.J. Blossfeld (Eds.): Education as a Lifelong Process. Results from the DFG Priority Programme 1646. Wiesbaden: Springer VS (part of Springer Nature).

  • Uunk, W., Beier, L., Minello, A., & Blossfeld, H.-P. (forthcoming). Warum wählen Frauen seltener MINT-Studienfächer? Der Einfluss der Mathematikleistung, - Geschlechtsspezifischer Lebensziele und der sozialen Herkunft. Uni.vers Forschung – das Magazin der Otto-Friedrich-Universität Bamberg, Bamberg: Otto-Friedrich-Universität.