Are Girls always Discriminated in Science? Evidence from the ENS Entrance Exams

note-ipp-15-dec2014IPP Policy Brief n°15

December 2014

Authors : Thomas Breda, Son-Thierry Ly



logo-pdf-min-2Are Girls discriminated against in the Sciences? Lessons from the ENS competitive entrance exams

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Stereotypes and social norms push girls towards studying the humanities rather than the sciences. The aim of this IPP Note is to examine the extent to which professors are liable to reinforce this self-selection by discriminating against girls who try to enter male-dominated disciplines. Using the competitive entrance exams for the École normale supérieure de Paris as a “natural experiment”, we show that in reality, the reverse phenomenon is at work. Discrimination occurs in favour of girls in the traditionally male-dominated disciplines (mathematics and philosophy, for example), and in favour of boys in the subjects considered the most “feminine” (biology and literature), slightly reducing gender segregation between the disciplines. The tendency of examiners to discriminate on the basis of a candidate’s gender is identified by the differences between the results of anonymous written tests (which neutralise gender discrimination) and oral tests (where the candidate’s sex is known to the examiners). This discrimination goes against gender stereotypes, which is likely to be explained by the fact that examiners try – consciously or not – to help the minority gender in their discipline. The results suggest that girls can follow study paths traditionally reserved for boys, without fear of being discriminated against.

Key points

  • Girls are under-represented in the hard sciences and the reasons for that are still not well known.
  • This study uses the ENS competitive entrance exams, comparing results from anonymous written and oral tests in order to assess the extent to which discrimination against girls helps to explain their under-representation in the science disciplines.
  • The study shows that girls are advantaged in the oral part of the admissions competition in the most male-dominated subjects (maths, physics and philiosophy). The reverse phenomenon is seen in the disciplilnes less dominated by boys, where it is boys who are advantaged.
  • These results reveal that young women are not necessarily discriminated against when they try to take up study in traditionally male-dominated areas.

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