Updated: Apr 18, 2021
By Aisha Mahal
Image via The Daily Northwestern
Over 130 million girls worldwide are currently missing out on an education, including 30 million girls of primary school age. This is 130 million girls who will not access the life-shaping benefits of supportive teachers, of eye-opening books, of new learning experiences and more. From the very start of their lives, these girls are at a disadvantage in fulfilling their true potential.
Gendered inequalities in education pose a significant global challenge, the repercussions of which can be seen across both social and economic spheres. As explained by Nobel Prize-winning American economist James Heckman in ‘The Economics of Inequality’, inequality in education “produces negative social and economic outcomes that can and should be prevented with investments in early childhood education.”
Education gender inequality is a double-edged sword, one which cuts deepest in the world’s poorest nations. These gaps are disproportionately wider in poorer countries. In low-income countries, less than 60% of girls complete their primary education, according to World Bank research. These disparities cannot be ignored. The social and cultural consequences of failing to educate girls to the same level as boys should be regarded as one of the most urgent development challenges of the twenty-first century.
Through education, or lack thereof for many young girls, gendered norms and expectations are ingrained. This can be as influential on a child’s development as appropriate nutrition and suitable sanitation. Only through ending the gap between the educational levels of young girls and boys will we be able to free girls from the discriminatory norms placed upon them from childhood.
This is not an easy challenge to solve. However, two approaches could be taken. One is by changing the attitude of parents. The other is changing the predominantly female make-up of primary school teaching staff.
Parents are a child’s first and most influential teacher. However, this can also mean that young children can internalize the harmful gender attitudes held by their parents. In many cultures, male babies are ‘favored, prioritized and valued’ due to the socially constructed belief that a girl will never be the breadwinner and cannot pass on the family name. Consequently, many young girls are never sent to school by their parents. This leaves many young girls around the world to be placed on a completely un-level playing field with the boys around them before even entering into the education system.
To fix this issue, it is crucial to change the attitudes of fathers and grandparents, both of whom usually hold the strongest beliefs about not educating girls.
If you then follow a young girl’s path into primary education – assuming her family allows her to go to school in the first place – it becomes clear that most of her teachers will be female. Primary school teaching staff are predominantly female and this has an unintended but damaging effect. The dialogue surrounding ‘care’ work, such as teaching, is often viewed as women’s work. It is assigned low value and low status, meaning very few men are involved. Having a majority of female teachers subconsciously plants the seed within both girls’ and boys’ heads that women are suited to these often under-paid and under-valued caregiving roles. Having equal numbers of male and female primary school teachers would help resolve this and give all children good role models. This may encourage more young boys to consider teaching and allow young girls to escape from the expectation that teaching is women’s work. This is crucial in the long run since even primary school education has a significant impact on the wage gap: women with no education will earn 14% to 19% less than men or women with primary education.
The combination of the above should be enough to convince policymakers and politicians that primary school educational inequalities must be resolved. However, often gender inequalities are placed on the backburner in domestic and foreign policy. It is a mistake to do so since, according to the UN, gender inequalities in education impacts the economic development of nations.
Save The Children and Plan International research shows that countries lose more than $1 billion every year when they fail to educate girls and boys equally. This is because under-educated civilians lead to a workforce that is ‘less than it could be’ as explained by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman. If Sub-Saharan Africa, South-Asia, the Middle-East and North Africa had pursued more equal education back in the 1960s (and strived to improve this constantly), their annual economic growth rates could now be growing by up to 1 percentage point faster.
To summarize in the simplest terms: education inequality does two things: it creates and maintains oppressive gendered norms which limit the aspirations and achievement of women, and it inhibits the economic growth of a country by limiting the capabilities of its workforce.
It is crucial to approach gender inequalities from the very, very start. Early education of young girls has to be this start point. As explained by Nicole Rodger from Plan International Australia, “investing early [in education] allows us to shape the future; investing later chains us to fixing the mixed opportunities of the past.” It is not too late to address this gender inequality in education. However, if we are to do so successfully, it is vital to start with girls at the very beginning of their educational journey.
Written by writer Aisha Mahal