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Gender gap in the Italian university system: a “reversed” leaky pipeline?

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Gender gap in STEM programs in Italian universities

It is an indisputable truth that, in most subject areas, a substantial balance between the proportion of males and females enrolled in university programs has been reached. However, even though there have been significant improvements, women are still underrepresented in some study fields, especially in STEM subjects.

Many studies have been carried out on this theme, bringing to light the so-called “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, a metaphor that describes how women become belittled minorities in STEM programs when moving forward to higher degrees of education. On top, that underrepresentation has long-term consequences, since it underpins the frequently addressed problem of the gender pay gap.

The data clearly show a gap between men’s and women’s participation rate, with an average difference of 26 percentage points.

If the data were consistent with the “leaky pipeline” concept, we should expect to see the proportion of female students decreasing in master programs, thus increasing the disparity between genders. However, unexpectedly, slight mitigation of the phenomena is observed, stating an average difference of 16 percentage points.

The women’s proportion recovery trend does not allow us to refer to the Italian situation as a leaky pipeline. On the contrary, an opposite trend could be detected, a sort of “reversed leaky pipeline”, where the number of students of the feminine sex raises instead of declining.

The result can be explained by zooming in on the percentage of females in each STEM subject.

The conclusion is that the reducing gap is due to an increase in the number of women attending Engineering degrees, since the percentage of females enrolled in the other fields of study remains approximately constant. Among the reasons behind this surprising rise in the number of females enrolled in engineering programs, there is the fact that more than a half of consumers are women. That’s why companies need them: if those designing the products are able to relate with the female part of the population, then the chance of selling them is higher. 

The trend proceeds in the same direction also when it comes to PhD programs, where in 2019 the proportion of women attending PhD STEM programs is about 42%, six percentage points higher than bachelor’s (36%) and one more than master’s (41%). In the graph below the increasing proportion of females in the three different study levels in 2019 is displayed.

What we can see is that the lack of appeal of science and engineering studies for young women is particularly problematic at the earliest stage of a typical academic career in this field, as the participation rate of women increases at each stage up to the PhD level.

The motivations underlying this pattern could be many and it is impossible to analyse them all. However, one could spontaneously come to the conclusion that the first leak in the pipeline happens during the school years, when students have to decide in which university studies to enrol. And maybe it doesn’t help that this crucial moment occurs in a very delicate phase of young men and women’s life, that is when all the experiences they have lived so far come together defining their temper and their aspirations. Thus, it is not a coincidence that if girls are often teased by their classmates and teachers for taking advanced science subjects, it will discourage girls from taking advanced STEM subjects.

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Motivations of the underrepresentation

Even though the gender gap in Italian university programs seems to be experiencing a contraction, it is noticeable that the proportion of females is still lower than males’. Many studies speculate on the plausible motivations of the underrepresentation. Among them, differences in participation based on gender are typically found in social phenomena linked to cultural and structural effects (Halpern et al. 2007; Husu 2005, 2013). The former is linked to factors such as discrimination and hostility through women, and it is likely to persist if no active measures are put in place in order to try to close the gap. On the other hand, the latter can be connected to the organizational level. An example of this is the process of homosociality (Lipman-Bluman 1976) where PhD candidates might be chosen because of their similarity to their supervisors, implying that the number of women in a department is an important factor determining future participation. 

At the same time, tastes and preferences certainly have a role to play in choosing one’s occupation. A possible factor preventing women from entering some male dominated professions might be related to the content of these jobs: women may prefer humanistic content over technical and manual things like engineering.

In addition, some women’s career choices may be the result not only of enduring gender-based stereotypes, but also of imbalances in unpaid care work and family responsibilities. They may also be affected by the lack of adequate public provision of childcare services or inadequate company policies on flexible working time arrangements. Some studies indeed suggest giving support to sectors to develop strategies to decrease the wage penalty associated with more time flexibility, rather than only striving to even the distribution of men and women over sectors and occupations. 

The gender pay gap

Because STEM degrees typically lead to higher-paying jobs , gender gaps in STEM college majors translate into gender gaps in earnings later in life. This problem is addressed as the “gender pay gap” and it is the difference in average gross hourly earnings between women and men. It is based on salaries paid directly to employees before income tax and social security contributions are deducted.

By observing the Eurostat data, the gender pay gap in the EU perseveres. However, the figures show a non-negligible reduction in that gap in the considered period, when it has been lowering from 17.1% in 2010 to 15.3% in 2018, as shown in the graph below.

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Obviously, some countries have been performing better than others and Italy is one of them.

However, the gender pay gap in Italy has not followed a linear path during these years, on the contrary it has been fluctuating over that time, experiencing a consistent increase between 2011 and 2013 when it reached its peak at 7.0%. After that, it has been overall reducing reaching one of the EU lowest levels in 2019.

The gender pay gap phenomenon is strictly related to the women underrepresentation problem in some fields. In particular, the lack of women in high paying, male-dominated, professions is considered to be one of the major causes of the gender pay gap. Around 30 % of the total gender pay gap is explained by the overrepresentation of women in relatively low-paying sectors, such as care and education. Moreover, in some countries (Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, Malta, Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Denmark) employed women are statistically more frequently represented in lower-paid occupations, even if on average they have a higher level of education than employed men.

Even though women are increasingly pursuing careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, there are still jobs where the proportion of male employees is very high, such as science, technology and engineering. Notably, salaries in the STEM occupational fields are higher, leading women to get a wage penalty.

The undervaluing of women’s work can also partly explain the persistence of the gender pay gap over time. Research has found that occupations with higher proportions of women pay lower wages. For instance, an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report shows that wages in the EU tend to be lower in companies that employ more women than in companies that have a more equal mix of male and female employees and are otherwise similar in terms of number of employees, economic sector, ownership and type of collective pay agreement.

Nevertheless, the above-mentioned report shows that in many countries women earn lower wages than men even if they are more educated than men working at the same occupational level.

This evidence shows that the policies aiming to close the gender gap in education don’t reach their goal in terms of gender pay gap, since men’s and women’s education are rewarded differently.


Even if on the gender pay gap front Italy is already faring better than other European countries, the road to definitely close this gap is still long.

The Italian government has demonstrated to be aware of the importance of taking action in this direction by drawing a plan to boost gender equality, aiming to finally allow men and women in Italy to have the same earnings and employment potential. In this regard, the minister for family and equal opportunities Elena Bonetti said “We expect Italy to enjoy complete gender parity by 2030, including for salaries”. This is a really forward-looking target that will take almost ten years of work from our government, but the intentions behind it are a fundamental source of hope for our country. In fact, as the Prime Minister Draghi said at the opening of the Women’s G20 in August, “Every loss of female talent is a loss for all of us”. And he really meant it, since inequality between men and women in the workplace penalises Italy’s GDP by around 88 billion euros. Therefore, gender equality is not just a fundamental goal from a human perspective, but it is also a necessary condition for a prosperous and sustainable economy.

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This intervention is a clear signal of an important change in Italian society: a country that has often been pointed at as misogynist and outdated-minded is now striving hard towards a more balanced, healthy society.

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A CLEF student with an insatiable hunger for knowledge. Very passionate about finance, political economy, social sciences and classical music.

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