The global policies concerning education and gender equality has a critical relationship with the development and engagement of many international non-governmental organizations and committees. While these numbers indicate that the world is far from achieving gender parity in education, it should be mentioned that gender parity, which aims at achieving equal participation for girls and boys in education, is merely a first step to achieve gender equality (UNESCO, 2012). Gender equality aims more than to ensure the basic human right to gain access and participate in education. Gender equality in education is attached with greater expectations to create and maintain gender-sensitive and gender-responsive educational environments and to obtain meaningful education outcomes.
In this sense, gender inequality in education covers more than the unequal educational opportunities given to girls and boys. Gender inequality in the quality and the outcomes which transfer the gains in education into the society should also be identified. Therefore, three main areas of gender inequality in education globally are defined as the access to, the completion of, and the outcomes of education. And these main areas of gender inequality will be discussed from the perspectives of primary, secondary and tertiary education.
As mentioned above, although general progress has been witnessed in closing gender gap in primary enrolment in the last decade, further effort should be made. According to UNESCO (2012), countries all over the world face gender disparities of some kind and the challenges vary widely among countries and even regions within countries. In most developed countries, universal primary education (UPE) has long been the situation. While in developing countries, considerable progress has been made and should continue to be made in making primary education accessible to children, bringing more educational chances to children, especially girls who are comparatively at disadvantage. Globally, most countries still face continuing challenges related to issues such as overage enrolment and graduation, repetition and dropping out, which are also gender related.
Gender disparities in secondary and tertiary enrolment, completion and outcomes are even severer than in primary education. Since the higher level of education means more opportunities and better development, the motivations towards secondary and tertiary education are strong within both genders. However, in the pursuit of higher levels of education, females are facing with more barriers. Girls and women are more likely to be excluded from secondary and higher education. There may be various reasons including the emotional and physical dangers to young girls such as sexual violence and patriarchal social norms that confine them to traditional gender roles (UNESCO, 2012). In families there may lack financial and emotional support to girls; in schools there may lack sanitary facilities for girls; in societies there may lack protective laws and policies to ensure the opportunities and quality of women’s education. All these factors combined contribute to the gender inequality in secondary and tertiary education.
Similarly, there has been a general growth worldwide in reaching gender parity in secondary and tertiary education. In almost all regions, there has been a general increasement in secondary and tertiary enrolment ratios for both males and females with females being the biggest beneficiaries with an increment in global gross secondary enrolment from 39 to 67 percent and tertiary enrolment from 8 to 28 percent from 1970 to 2009. Among all the holders of bachelor’s degrees, gender parity is generally reached. Women even have an edge over men of 56 to 44 percent in master’s degrees. However, at the meantime, the global average GER for males rose from 48 to 69 percent at secondary level and 11 to 26 percent at tertiary level (UNESCO, 2012).
In most regions, the value of GPI in secondary and tertiary education remains less than 1. In nearly one-thirds of the globe, males are still favoured at secondary level. And in almost all countries, at PhD level, males are more advantaged. Furthermore, significant differences are also observed in the fields in which men and women choose to earn degrees which are highly influential in the transforming of gains in education into social, economic and political participation. In all regions of the world, women gravitate strongly toward the life sciences, and show relatively low interest in computing. The proportion of female graduates is much higher in the social sciences, business, and law (UNESCO, 2012). According to the economic value of college majors proposed by Carnevale et al (2015), almost all of the highest-paying majors are in engineering fields where males constitute a majority of graduates in almost all countries, and the lowest-paying majors are in education, arts, and social work fields where much more women are devoted to. While in most regions, young women have made significant gains in education, they continue to face barriers to translating these gains into equal labour market opportunities (UN, 2020). The gender gap in labour market has stagnated over the past two decades, with women continuing to hold limited control of assets (UN, 2020).
With the popularization of neoliberal educational policies, higher levels of schooling are now required to attain social mobility and escape poverty (Kromydas, 2017). Under the regimes of such polices and practices, the marketisation, privatisation and globalization of education have led to more attention to gender egalitarianism (UNESCO, 2012). Comparatively, women are usually in urgent need to have more education than men to get the same jobs though women are more likely to exceed their rivals of the opposite sex in grades, evaluations and degree completion. Women in higher education have much more to do to translate their gains into proportional representation in the labour market, especially in leadership and decision-making positions. Even after decades of progress and efforts, women today continue to confront discrimination in jobs, disparities in power, voice and political representation and the gender-prejudicial laws (UNESCO, 2012). Politics and decision-making are still overwhelmingly dominated by males. The voices of girls and women are being prevailed over. And our education, which has been attached great importance more than ever to tackle these inequalities and injustices, is still far from achieving gender quality.
In addition to the gender inequality in the access to, the completion of and the outcomes of education in the global context throughout primary, secondary and tertiary education, much more remains unidentified such as those in informal education where the majority are female. In pre-primary education for example, while researches around the world has shown that participation in pre-primary education translates into better learning outcomes once pupils enter primary school and move on to higher levels of education, pre-primary education which involves more costs to the families are presumed to be received more by boys.
In the last few decades, through the engagement and efforts of many parties including numerous international organisations and governments of all nations, impressive and dramatic progress has been made in gender equality and education. But we have also seen pushback in certain perspectives and areas which cause devasting destruction to women’s rights and the broader development agenda. Women are still under-represented in power and decision-making. Poverty, discrimination, and violence are still strongly present in the lives of women and girls, obstruct them to receive equal education and hinder them to pursue development.
Hindrances in Equalisation
After the identification of the three main areas of gender inequality in education in the global context, another question emerges: how to address these issues. Before any potential solution is proposed, a further analysis concerning the factors that contribute to these phenomena should be conducted. As pointed out in this essay, the critical hinderances in achieving gender equality are poverty, social norms with patriarchal characteristics and early marriage and early pregnancy.
Poverty means more than poverty. And according to Sen and Nussbaum (1993), it hinders a person’s capability when the freedom to achieve individual development is unaffordable. Poverty has more to do with gender inequality in education. In this world, millions of people remain trapped in extreme poverty, and access to education and health remains out of reach for millions of women and girls. Although since the late twentieth century, considerable progress has been made to erase gender inequality and to eliminate poverty, this progress is uneven and insufficient. According to UN (2020), approximately a billion people have escaped from extreme poverty since 1990, but currently more women are living in poverty and remaining unemployed, uneducated, and untrained. And among the 60 million young girls in the world, 89% of them live in less developed regions where poverty is widespread. It is reported that nearly half a billion women and girls aged 15 years and over are illiterate. In many countries, women and girls from poor families are four times as likely to be illiterate as those from the richest households. Females from poor and rural households are facing severe discrimination and exclusion (UN, 2020). The dominating influence of post-colonial and neoliberal ideologies are casting impenetrable shadows on girls and women. The deregulation of market and cuts to public services brings people more subjectivities among whom females in poorer countries are more vulnerable to these changes of policies.
In developing countries, it is the wealthier and better educated families rather than the poor and uneducated households who finance and support their children to schools, from pre-primary to tertiary education. Apart from gender parity in enrolment, poverty has also been identified as one of the causes of dropping out. Dropout rates are highly corelated to the national and family economic context (UNESCO, 2012). In certain less developed countries, the costs of education are burdens to families. Since parents must bear the expenses of children’s education, less families are willing to invest this time-consuming and low-profits project. In the national level, a poor economy can also be the cause of inadequate teaching/learning facilities, unfavourable teaching/learning conditions and poor teaching/teaching quality. The vicious cycle of poverty-uneducated-poverty is dragging the vulnerable female away from education and development.
Another contributor to gender inequality in education is the entrenched patriarchal social norms that hinder females to pursue education and development opportunities. Conventionally in almost all countries around the world, females are characterized as the ‘angle in the house’ whose primary responsibilities is to stay at home, doing housework and caring for the family. As these informal jobs requires informal education and training, women are excluded form formal and better education. Education costs may lead parents to prioritize the education opportunity of one child over the other, and in gender context often based on social norms that favour boys or girls (UNESCO, 2018). Even when girls are enrolled, their learning quality may be influenced.
Data shows that young girls are more likely to spend more hours on household chores to an amount potentially harmful to their physical, social, psychological or educational development. As in higher levels of education, the gender differences in the choice of majors are also related to social norms which prefer women to devote to arts, humanities and social science rather than in ‘hard science’ and technologies as mention above. In the long-term, such gender norms may deprive girls and women to pursue further development. Social norms with patriarchal characteristics can lead to discrimination and denigration against females. Under the gender norms where females are unfavoured and unvalued, girls right to education are often neglected and unprotected.
The third threat to the gender equality is the remaining issue of child marriage and early pregnancy. While young girls are at high risk of becoming married and pregnant, especially when access to modern contraception is limited and sexuality education is poor or non-existent, their access to education are blocked, the quality and completion of education are not guaranteed, not to mention the outcomes of education. Too few adolescent girls receive essential maternal health care and many girls needs for family planning remain unmet. Besides early marriage and pregnancy, relating issues such as maternal health care, sex violence and sexually transmitted diseases are continuously being the obstacles for girls and women in their life and education.
According to UN (2020), the rate of child marriage has declined slightly but 650 million women alive in the world today were married before eighteen. Within marriage, many women are required by law to obey their husbands and marital violence is often not explicitly criminalized. It has been acknowledged that more educated women have few but healthier children; have more controls over wealth and access to health services; have healthier and better life (Hill& King, 1995). Consequently, their children are more likely to be well educated than those women who are unable to get access to education, unable to escape poverty, early marriage and early pregnancy.
In reality, factors like poverty, patriarchal social norms, early marriage and early pregnancy often interact with each other and exert their comprehensive influences on gender inequality in education. In the latest Covid-19 pandemic, for example, when schools are closed during this global crisis, the enrolment and learning outcomes of girls are at risk. For adolescent girls, schools are often perceived as one of the strongest social networks providing peers and mentors, and when girls are isolated in home, the risk of violence increases (UN, 2020; UNICEF, 2020). Their learning opportunities are also affected as girls may be precluded from essential digital platforms needed for remote learning as reported in China and many other countries.
The quality of their learning may also under the influence of home quarantine as girls are burdened by caring and domestic responsibilities. In the Covid-19 crisis, girls and women are buried with more responsibilities to care for sick relatives, household chores and childcare. Compared with their male peers, girls and women are more likely to be confined to home, called upon to chores and care for sick family members and assist younger children with remote learning, risking their own opportunities to learn. In a word, girls and women are more vulnerable in the risks of our time. And their opportunities to receive education and training are at risk when confronting with global crisis such as poverty, conflicts, and environmental changes.
Since the late twentieth century, countries in all regions have scaled up education, health and childcare services, bringing huge benefits women’s and girls’ as well as for societies and economies at large. International development policies and agendas have made considerable progress in pursuing gender equality in education. Yet, this work is unfinished and more urgent than ever. Gender parity, as just the start towards gender equality, has not been achieved in many countries. There remain troubling patterns across all levels of education in terms of quality and opportunity. (Baily & Holmarsdottir ,2015). Change is urgently needed, and it requires the joint force and determination of the whole human society.
Reviewing the previous and current global policies concerning gender equality in education is helpful in seeking improvement. The broken promises of EFA which fails to elaminate gender disparities and achieve gender equality in education require us to reflect on the limitations of current policies and practices and put forward more practical ones to fix the unsolved problem (UIS& UNICEF, 2015). Limitations of the current global policies and practices concerning gender equality and education can be generally concluded as the overemphasis on economy, the focus on formal education and the simplification of situations. There is the view that economic growth automatically benefits women. Economic growth does not necessarily boost the quality of education and vice versa. However, to promote gender equality, large amount of additional funding, huge programmes and enabled economic policies are the necessary conditions. It should be noticed that besides economic factors, exploitation in social division also bring challenges to equal education for genders. As mention above, the causes of gender inequality in education are multiple. Thus, policies and practices should seek to address these issues comprehensively.
Since situations vary in different countries, it is suggested that governments should seek to adjust the global agendas to their own conditions. Most countries need a policy framework combining three priorities: broad investment in education systems, a sharp focus on inclusive and quality education, and targeted interventions. For countries in the final mile, they must strive to break down the persistent barriers to education while for countries still in the struggle, an increasement in their investment in approaches to expand and improve education systems is strongly recommended (UIS& UNICEF, 2015). Certain key measures have proven to be effective and need to be part of the policy agenda in every country facing the challenge of gender inequality in education. For example, since poverty is one of the major barriers, it is crucial to reduce the fee to relieve the financial burdens for families who are unable to support the cost of education. Evidence also shows that certain interventions like resource interventions to support girls’ education, infrastructural interventions and interventions for institutional change are critical in improving the gender inequality (Unterhalter et al, 2014).
Above all, it is suggested that governments and international organizations must make it a priority to bring both financial and human resources to eliminate gender inequality in education. This also require engagement and support from non-governmental organizations, civil society, private sectors and communities. Achieving gender equality in education should be a global goal and the business of everyone.
Gender equality and education are central to realizing the Millennium agenda and sustainable goals (Unterhalter, 2005). Gender equality in education is not only morally right and basic human right but also pivotal to human progress and sustainable development. Yet, despite substantial gains since the late twentieth century, gender inequality remains pervasive in every region of the world. In the context of education, it appears in the preference for males over females in terms of enrolment, limited opportunities in education and work for girls and women. Eliminating gender inequality in education require accelerating progress through gender parity in enrolment, financing the poor, legislation against child marriage and early pregnancy, renew of the social norms, improved research and data and so on. Education has broken its promise to achieve equality, especially gender equality. And the world is in a urgent need of change.