The Survey of Adult Skills is part of the OECD’s Programme of International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC). It is a rich resource and one that should inform discussions such as this one being held by EPALE to mark International Women’s Day. It provides data on the literacy and numeracy levels of 166 000 adults aged 16-65 in 24 countries, 17 of them within the European Union. A further group of countries, including Slovenia, took part in a second wave of surveys and will report their data in the coming months. The size of the sample allows for meaningful analysis of in-country and between-country difference on a range of socio-economic factors, including of course gender.
1. “Women and men have very similar proficiency levels.” (OECD 2013 p40)
PIAAC is organised into five proficiency ‘levels’, with Level 1 the lowest. The OECD, acknowledging the complexity of the interaction between supply and demand for adult skills, have not set any particular level of literacy or numeracy as a threshold for participation in society. However, most studies have taken Level 2 as the minimum required, with those who scored at or below Level 1 deemed the 'low-performers'.
In literacy there are only small differences in the proportion of men (50.1%) and women (49.9%) in the 'low-performing' group. A greater share of women than men is found among the low numeracy population, but the gap is small and gets smaller when other socio-economic factors are taken into consideration.
Performance in literacy and numeracy is highly correlated in the survey; many of those who scored on the low levels of the scale in literacy also did so in numeracy. Among adults who scored at Level 1 or below in either literacy or numeracy, 55% scored at or below Level 1 in both literacy and numeracy, 15% in literacy alone and 30% just in numeracy. And here there is a gendered pattern – the women in this group were more likely than men to have poor numeracy only and the men were more likely to have poor literacy only.
2. “In over half of the countries surveyed there is no statistically significant difference between men and women on the literacy scale.” (OECD 2013 p111)
European countries have much in common. Across the whole sample men and women were evenly represented in the low-performing group in literacy and most individual countries also follow this pattern. However, this is not repeated everywhere. For example, men outperformed women in literacy in the Netherlands, Germany and Flanders, while more men than women were found among the low performers in literacy in both Poland and Denmark.
Women outnumber men among the low performers in numeracy, with more women scoring at the lowest level than men. And this holds true for most countries, with the exception of Poland, again, and the Slovak Republic.
3. “… across countries, older low-educated women from disadvantaged backgrounds face a slightly higher risk of scoring at lower levels of proficiency on the literacy scale than older men with the same profile.” (OECD 2013 p124)
Education level and parents’ socio-economic status have a more profound association with literacy and numeracy scores in PIAAC than gender. However, gender does appear to interact with these factors. On average, low-educated women from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds have nearly five times the odds of scoring at lower levels of proficiency in literacy, compared to women with at least upper secondary education. For men the odds are closer to four times. This pattern holds in about half of the countries and is particularly evident in Flanders, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
4. “… men and women use their skills in different ways, partly because of their jobs.” (OECD 2013 p149)
PIAAC didn’t just test people’s skills in literacy and numeracy, it also asked them how they used them at work and at home. In general, women engage less than men with reading, writing and numeracy inside the workplace and more than men outside. These differences may not be about gender as much as the jobs that men and women have, with women more likely to work part-time for example.
David Mallows has over 25 years experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He is currently Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and leads the adult education strand of European Commission’s literacy policy network, ELINET.