Is the human capital 'gender gap' a matter of experience, education or both?

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After a long job search, you are rewarded by the phone call all job seekers wait patiently for, the interview invitation. You prep and spend as much time on the outfit you plan to wear as you do practicing mock interviews with your friends. You get to the interview all prepared to discuss your semester abroad as a graduate student, your thesis that took you to Congo and extensive work experience that landed you coveted past jobs. Your prospective employer will be as interested in your past work experience as in your formal education or schooling. The quality and the quantity (number of years) of relevant experience could drop you out of the race all together or…land you the job, determine your pay bracket and impact your future career growth.


Is a solid education enough to level the gender gap in human capital? (Credit: World Bank)

If you are in the work force or recently out of school and actively interviewing for your first job, you’ve been there. So let us ask you, isn’t it surprising that the vast literature on gender based differences in human capital is focused on formal education and schooling? Shouldn’t research be looking at schooling and beyond to better understand gender-based differences in human capital? What is a greater impediment to gender parity in the labor market – lower education among females relative to males or differences in the quality and quantity of past professional experience? These are important questions and relatively unexplored topics, especially in the case of developing countries. We raise some of these questions.
Using data from Enterprise Surveys in 71 developing countries, as well as data covering informal firms in Rwanda we find a strong evidence of significantly lower level of professional experience among female managers relative to their male counterparts, this may also mean a gender gap in their pay despite operating at the same level. Interestingly, we find the same holds even after accounting for differences in firm-size, sector of activity, age of the firm and the manager’s characteristics such as his/her age, marital status, education level, etc. The figure below shows the gender-based gap in managerial experience by country. In 53 out of 71 countries, female managers have less experience than their male counterparts; the opposite holds in 13 countries, and the remaining 5 countries show no difference along gender lines.

These results are preliminary, but they do highlight that the underlying differences in the quality and quantity of job experience may lead to varying labor market experience for men and women. The next natural steps for research is to look why there is a gender disparity in managerial experience and how gender based differences in managerial experience influence wages, firm’s productivity and overall economic development.  

But for now our contribution to the discussion on gender based differences in human capital is that we need to widen the scope of research and look beyond schooling.  Work experience, networking, family status and many other components need to be considered to fathom gender based differences in human capital. If we want to know why women make less money than men, or why firms with more women on boards take more risky decisions, or understand other gender differentiated outcomes in labor markets and management, we need to know what gender differences in inputs to human capital are.


Mohammad Amin

Private Sector Development Specialist

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