Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Education Policy (PhD)

Degree Level



Education Reform


Gema Zamarro

Committee Member

Sarah McKenzie

Second Committee Member

Jonathan Wai


Gender Gaps, PISA, Self-efficacy, STEM


Increasing women’s participation in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has become a policy goal for many countries. This dissertation focuses on the origin and measurement of gender gaps in student achievement and self-perceived ability, as well as their potential role in predicting college career choices in STEM.

The first two chapters provide an international overview of gender achievement gaps and focus on issues around measurement using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). These chapters study the role of student effort in predicting gender gaps in achievement and whether or not test structure, defined as question difficulty order, could be a potential moderator of the relationship between student effort and measured gender achievement gaps.

The effort measures of chapters 1 and 2 are based on students’ response time to test questions (i.e., rates-guessing rates in the test) and on the proportion of unanswered items (i.e., item non-response rates) from the post-test survey that students take during the PISA assessment. The findings emphasize the importance of accounting for differences in student effort to understand cross-country heterogeneity in performance and gender achievement gaps across and within nations. Although question difficulty order plays some role in shaping student effort, overall, the findings do not provide evidence that test structure could be a mechanism that explains the relationship between student effort and gender achievement gaps.

Finally, the third chapter takes a further step in the analysis of gender achievement gaps by assessing how the interaction of gender gaps in math achievement, self-perceived math ability during childhood, and the parental occupation in STEM professions, could help explain the gender gaps in college majoring-decisions in STEM careers. Using longitudinal data from the U.S., the findings of this chapter suggest that all three factors are relevant predictors of majoring in science in college. However, the results indicate a loss in STEM enrollment by otherwise qualified young women. Concerning parental occupation, most of the positive effects of having a parent working in any STEM job seem to concentrate among females, which highlights the potential role that parental occupation could play in encouraging women's college majoring-decisions in certain STEM fields.

Altogether, these chapters advance the current state of knowledge in three ways. First, by evaluating the challenges in measuring observed gender achievement gaps, derived from gender differences in student effort. Second, by assessing whether or not question difficulty order has differential effects by gender. Third, by studying the potential drivers behind gender gaps in STEM college majors, including the role that parental occupation in some STEM fields, could play in motivating women's participation in certain STEM careers.