Marta Encinas-Martín, OECD Education Gender Ambassador and Senior Advisor, Latin America

Marta Encinas-Martín is the Ambassador for Gender in Education at the OECD, where she also holds the position of Senior Advisor for Latin America in the Secretariat for Global Relations. Previously at UNESCO she worked on various programs on evaluation and measurement of education systems in Africa, Latin America and Central Asia, as well as in the coordination of Education for All (EFA) and carried out extensive research on national evaluation systems around the world published in the UNESCO EFA Monitoring Report. Previously, she had worked in the field of intercultural and linguistic communication. Marta studied Pedagogy, International Relations and Scandinavian Philology at the universities of Oslo (Norway) and Uppsala (Sweden).

"Education being a key driver of growth to support future progress"

In this issue of Progreso magazine, she describes the current situation and challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean in terms of education and analyzes the results of reports that assess the competencies of Latin American youth and adults.


  • Education levels have risen in Latin America, but even so many young people still encounter difficulties in finding a job and employers believe that a skills shortage is holding back their businesses. What are your main recommendations for further improvements in  the educational system to facilitate access to employment?

Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is a land of untapped potential. The region is young, offering a unique demographic window of opportunity for inclusive growth in the region, with education being a key driver of growth to support future progress. The social and economic progress of the last decades led to increased access to education, but much remains to be done to improve the equity and quality of that education.

The analysis published in Skills in Latin America: Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) has shown that although Latin American countries tend to perform less well in all areas, they seem to be benefiting from the recent expansion in access to education. This is corroborated by the cohorts of more highly educated young people who have a better skill set than older adults.  But at the same time, the young people who dropped out of school had extremely low skill sets, which means that specific policies are required to tackle the needs of this particularly vulnerable group.

The region is benefiting from the recent expansion of education. More highly educated younger adults (aged between 16 and 24) score higher than those who dropped out of school before completing their secondary education by a wider margin than do their peers in OECD countries. Skill levels in participating Latin American countries tend to increase linearly with age, reflecting the very recent expansion of upper secondary education in the region. The gender gaps in skills development are also narrowing: although women lag further behind men in numeracy than they do in the OECD average, however, the gap is below the OECD average among 16 - 24 years olds in Chile and Peru.


  • What are the key takeaways from this report? 

PIAAC assesses a wide spectrum of skills in the population aged between 16 and 65, and we could focus on many of the conclusions it reaches. This report evaluates the skills of participating Latin American youth and adults, highlighting the skills levels of different population subgroups, defined according to different sociodemographic characteristics.  

PIAAC found that adults (from 16 to 65) in Latin America performed well below those in most other participating countries, including other middle-income countries. In reading, math and digital skills, the participating Latin American countries are close to or in the lower score range, whatever measurement is used. In digital skills, substantial proportions of their population did not possess the skills necessary to even complete the assessment. 

On average, in all the OECD countries participating in PIAAC, one in ten adults (10.0%) obtained a Level 4 or higher and one in every three (34.6%) scored at Level 3 in literacy. Overall, nearly half of all participating adults (44.6%) scored at the highest levels (Levels 3, 4 and 5). Below these, around one in three adults (34.3%) performed to Level 2 and around one in five adults at Level 1 (15.0%) or below Level 1 (4.8%).

By contrast, the results for Latin American participants show that fewer than one in eight adults reached Level 3 or higher in Ecuador (5.2 %), Mexico (11.7%) and Peru (6.1%). At 14.5%, a slightly higher percentage of adults in Chile performed at the highest literacy competency levels. These countries were also among the countries and economies with larger proportions of adults who obtained Level 1 competency or lower, the lowest possible. Over half of their populations scored at the lowest literacy levels:  71.2% in Ecuador, 70.2% in Peru, 53.4% in Chile and 50.6% in Mexico, while the numeracy results were actually even lower.

Latin America has a long way to go to improve its population’s general and digital skills. 

  • Human capital is a determinant of success for individuals and economies. Your report concludes that reading comprehension and numeracy are essential for other digital competences that have an impact on all areas of life. Can you explain from your experience how these skills have a bearing on digital competences? 

Low information processing skills among working-age adults in Latin American countries represent challenges for their governments. Some experts believe that middle-income countries may lack the capacity to absorb digital technologies (ICT) when compared to high-income countries, with the result that the supply and demand of ICT skills in the first group is different to that in the second.  Furthermore, to some degree, the use of new, and particularly digital, technologies depends on the population’s educational attainments, including their information processing abilities, together with the widespread availability of digital services.

The Latin American region has one of the lowest literacy and numeracy levels in PIAAC, so they will need to make major strides to digitalize their populations. This is possible, and other countries that participate in PIAAC have proven that it can be done.  PIAAC provides examples of very high-income countries with a high proportion of adults with low reading and numeracy skills (Singapore and the USA, for example), as well as examples of countries (South Korea and Singapore) that in the last half of last century successfully raised the skillset of successive generations from a similar starting point to that of participating Latin American countries now.


  • Moving on to the issue of gender, girls in the region get better results in reading whatever their socioeconomic level, according to the data in PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which measures the capacity of 15-year-old students to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to tackle real-life challenges), but this advantage does not transfer over to better results in employment. Why? What is happening?

Without a doubt in the last 20 years girls have made enormous progress in education. OECD data show that in nearly half the participating countries, women are now more likely than men to finish higher secondary education. Even in countries when men have the advantage, this gap has narrowed considerably since 2000.


Marta Encinas-Martín, OECD Education Gender Ambassador and Senior Advisor, Latin America

In secondary education, performance variations between both sexes, above all in reading, are very pronounced. The PISA report shows that 15-year-old girls systematically score higher than boys in reading. In PISA 2018, girls scored 30 points higher in reading than the boys on average in OECD countries, and their advantage was observed across the board in all the participating countries and economies, and they also outperform boys in sciences.

Although 15-year-old boys were more likely than girls of the same age to perform poorly in reading, math and sciences, PISA also shows that, among those getting the best results in both sexes, the boys tend to do better than girls in both math and science. On average, in OECD countries in 2018, around 12% of boys and 9% of girls obtained the top grades in maths in PISA, whereas just over 7% of boys and around 6% of girls achieved top scores in science subjects.

There may be many reasons why girls are under-represented in the top levels in mathematics. In general, girls feel less confident than boys about their capacity to resolve mathematical or scientific problems. Girls —even high achievers— tend also to express profound feelings of anxiety about math. In the 70 countries and economies taking part in PISA 2018, the girls articulated their fear of failing more frequently —and to a greater degree— than the boys. The fear of failure and the lack of confidence in their abilities are generally associated with gender stereotypes that persist in families, at school and in communities. For example, in all the PISA countries and economies that distributed the questionnaire for parents in 2012, both fathers and mothers hoped that their sons —not their daughters— would work in a STEM-related (science, technology, engineering or math) field.

These attitudes may have an influence on students’ professional aspirations, even among high achievers. The results of PISA 2018 showed that, broadly speaking across OECD countries, only 14% of 15-year-old girls with the best results in sciences or maths said that they hoped to work in professional science-related or engineering jobs, whereas in the case of boys of the same age achieving the best results it was 26%. It is not surprising that these attitudes influence students’ decisions about what to study at university and that, in turn, affect the expectations of young people of both sexes in the labor market and impact their lifetime earnings.

Some interesting facts about gender differences brought to light in the OECD’s report “Gender, Education and Skills: The Persistence of Gender Gaps in Education and Skills” in the OECD:


  • Girls tend to perform better than boys in reading across all OECD and partner countries. 
  • Boys outperform girls in mathematics by a much smaller margin than girls outperform boys in reading; the gender gap in science is far narrower than in the other two subjects.
  • The average performance of boys and girls masks wide variations among students at the extreme ends of the performance distribution.
  • PISA indicates that at age 15, boys are more likely than girls to be low achievers in all the three domains assessed: reading, mathematics and science.
  • Among the highest-achieving students, girls perform better than boys in reading, but not in mathematics.
  • Young men are more likely than young women to lack an upper secondary and a tertiary qualification, on average across OECD countries. This gender gap in favour of women has only increased between 2000 and 2020. 
  • In most countries, early school leavers are predominantly boys/men.
  • Women continue to dominate in fields of study related to caring, health and welfare, and education, but are under-represented in STEM-related fields.
  • Since women in tertiary education choose fields of study with relatively less mathematical content, they are also much less likely than their male peers to practise advanced mathematics daily.
  • PIAAC indicates that at university, men have greater proficiency in numeracy than women, probably due to career choice. The advantage in literacy performance that girls had during compulsory education seems to narrow or completely disappear at university.
  • Gender differences in numeracy proficiency are apparent when all adults, aged 16-65, are considered, even though the differences are smaller than those found among university students.
  • In contrast to numeracy, men’s and women’s performance in literacy is markedly similar in all countries.
  • In all OECD and partner countries, men are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages, than women.
  • PISA shows us that in all countries taking part in the assessment, girls get higher marks in reading, although their advantage in LAC is lower than in other regions. 


  •  What role do gender stereotypes play in education and particularly in choosing what to study? How does this condition labor participation and wage levels between men and women?

For many years the OECD has collected large amounts of information about what girls and boys think their likely future in the workplace will be and how they get involved in professional development activities. The OECD’s International Early Learning & Child Well-being Study reveals that young people form their ideas about the job they will do as adults from five years old onward.  Furthermore, large-scale studies in several countries have demonstrated that children’s professional ambitions at such an early age are very differentiated by gender, especially in the case of boys (OECD 2021). Although children express their personal preferences according to their own interests, they also reflect the breadth of the likely opportunities to which they have been exposed and the assumptions they encounter about which professional careers are “reasonable” for girls and boys to pursue. This conditions their choices a great deal if no action is taken.

PISA’s three-yearly assessments have included many important questions that provide useful information about different outlooks relating to degrees that are commonly found in many countries and economic areas participating in the study. 

Gender stereotypes are particularly widespread in STEM industries and education, which reduces girls’ confidence and interest in ICT, creating distance from it. What is more, gender stereotypes are a long-standing problem that must be tackled in information & communications technology ("ICT"). Latin America is no exception, and very few girls study STEM degrees, which are the ones that offer greater employability and higher salaries, so this is detrimental to women’s economic empowerment.


  • Has the impact that education has on economic development been calculated?

The countries in Latin America stand apart for having, on the whole, a fairly low level of skills and expertise. Their performance reflects a series of factors, such as the quality of the educational system, economic development, and historic levels of school attendance. These results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC) are also consistent with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which found that in economies with per capita GDP under USD 20,000, the richer the country, the higher its average score in PISA’s reading test. This indicates a positive correlation between per capita domestic income and performance, until a minimum threshold is reached, which the countries in the region have not yet attained (OECD, 2018; OECD, 2012).


  • What can we do to turn this situation around, and what would be the road map for doing so?

Invest in high quality education, benefiting both girls and boys. Without good education, both at the outset and throughout, it will be difficult to change the current situation of the region. 

To do so, it is very important to assess both the educational systems, the way in which students are taught, and also the competences of the young and adult population. This will enable the region to compare itself against other countries and to see what needs improving and find case studies of how to do so.