Overcoming the gender gap – how vocational education and training can help

Hubert Ertl

Dear readers

A glance at practice and at the relevant research clearly shows us that men and women make different educational and occupational decisions. These differences continue in the form of career pathways and ultimately lead to an unequal distribution of opportunities in the world of work.

The present issue of BWP looks at this topic area by revealing the current status of research and by shedding light on gender-specific contexts in occupational practice. The aim is to find answers to the questions of how gender differences occur within decision-making behaviour and which measures may contribute towards bringing about an improvement in gender fairness in working life.

Gender-specific inequalities in employment

Gender-specific differences on the labour market have been well documented in research for some considerable time. Whereas female participation in working life has risen continuously over recent decades, little has changed with regard to the income gaps between women and men. One of the reasons for this is that many areas of the world of work are characterised by gender segregation. In other words, some occupations display a very high proportion of either women or men. This is linked to varying income and career options. The patterns that need to be observed in this regard have shown themselves to be largely stable in the past. But in terms of the causes of these gender differences, the findings remain unclear.

Obvious causalities, such as between amount of income and part-time work, are absent. This makes it difficult to initiate measures which could help ensure greater fairness in working life. The moderate degree of success enjoyed by initiatives and projects in this field is evidence of these difficulties and prompts further questions, especially in respect of how VET can assist in dismantling gender segregation and in creating equal distribution of opportunities.

The role of VET

Qualified training can help reduce gender-specific differences in income. Compared to the average of the labour demand as a whole, the gender pay gap is shrinking for women who have completed vocational education and training. Nevertheless, the income difference in this qualification segment is not vanishing entirely.

Research results strongly suggest that measures aimed at breaking down gender-specific occupational behaviour are particularly effective if they are instigated early. Some promising approaches are being adopted, especially in connection with enhancing the attractiveness of technical occupations for young women. However, these need to be continued and improved further. This is an area in which the significance of practical experience seems to play a significant role.

In order to break down gender stereotypes and the inequalities associated with them, it is worth taking a differentiated view of the factors which serve to reinforce them. This needs to take place in different fields – within the scope of vocational orientation and career guidance, during training at the level of the learning venues (at companies, for instance), and in structural terms when developing training regulations and curricula. The focus must be on detecting and reflecting on existing mechanisms, and then working to change them.

Instructive findings are also emerging from qualitative studies which are facilitating a more detailed consideration of the relevant correlations. Analysis of non-gender typical career choice decisions is one case in point here.

If we are to combat gender inequalities, then we will require plenty of staying power, including and especially with regard to the way in which future-oriented vocational education and training is to be shaped.


Prof. Dr. Hubert Ertl
Director of Research and Vice-President of BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 4/2021): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin