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Fall 2011

Volume 40
Number 2

Higher Education and Global Gender Equity


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Nelly Stromquist
Nelly Stromquist

Women and Education in the Early Twenty-First Century: A Global Perspective
By Nelly P. Stromquist, professor of international education policy at the College of Education, University of Maryland

Education is widely recognized as a critical mechanism for equalizing life and career chances for everyone, but particularly for girls and women. The empirical evidence is clear: schooling has numerous benefits for girls’ and women’s individual and family situations, including lower child mortality and illness, greater education for offspring, and higher participation in the labor force. Educated women engage in better decision making about marriage, spousal relations, household management, and type of employment than those with no schooling. They also tend to work for remuneration, which fosters economic development and increases their autonomy.

In this brief article, I describe and analyze the situation for women’s education throughout the world. I do so from both a gender and a national development perspective, attentive to ways to improve women’s participation in society at large as well as to how gender relations are currently being transformed. I make comparisons across world regions, although significant variation clearly exists within these regions.

Access and Completion

Across all countries, access to schooling is expanding, and with it the participation of girls and women. Access to primary education has been increasing over time, and girls have reached parity with boys in most world regions, except sub-Saharan Africa and South/West Asia. The primary reasons for girls’ lack of parity in these regions are 1) poverty, which requires girls to contribute to domestic tasks such as providing fuel and water; and 2) traditional gender norms that assign women rigid domestic roles that exalt their responsibilities as mothers and care providers.

At present, two global initiatives—Education for All and the Millennium Development Goals—seek to increase educational access and completion. Both identify basic education as a priority and seek to ensure gender parity in primary and secondary education. In part because of these initiatives, primary school completion rates have increased in low-income countries from 44 percent in 1990 to 63 percent in 2008 (UIS 2010). However, many rural and ethnic minority populations still do not have access to formal education, and a considerable number of children do not attend school at all, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South/West Asia. Recent estimates suggest that between 67 and 73 million children of primary school age and 71 million children of lower secondary school age—one in five within this age group—do not attend school (UIS 2010). 

While overall attendance rates suggest much room for growth, disaggregated data show varying differences by gender. At the primary school level, gender parity in attendance varies widely across economic groups. The existing data might show even greater disparities with further disaggregation by residence (urban or rural) and ethnicity, as suggested by studies showing that indigenous girls in Latin America and girls in India who belong to certain castes or tribes attend schools at lower rates than their male counterparts. In sub-Saharan Africa and South/West Africa alone, more than 54 million girls are not attending primary or lower secondary school.

At the secondary school level, girls in many regions experience decreased participation as they reach adolescence, when they face increased domestic responsibilities or prepare for marriage. The world Gender Parity Index (GPI) for secondary education is very close to gender parity at 0.96 (UIS 2010), but this average masks diversity among and within regions. In Latin America, for example, girls’ participation in secondary education has matched and even exceeded boys’; as a result, governments consider gender disparities to be nonexistent, except among indigenous and Afro-descendant groups. But data collected by school systems often do not include information about families’ socioeconomic status or ethnicity, preventing researchers from fully understanding how these factors affect girls’ and boys’ participation. Meanwhile, a high proportion of out-of-school adolescent girls can be found in Arab states. These disparities have critical consequences, as data from forty-three developing countries indicate that teenage girls with no schooling are three times more likely to become pregnant than teenage girls with secondary schooling.

Efforts to expand educational access can create new challenges to access. Some regions have expanded primary education by instituting multiple shifts in the school day, with the number of hours each student spends in class reduced as a result. Schools may offer up to three shifts a day, with each student receiving no more than three hours of education daily. Some countries have expanded access through rural community-supported schools with little government funding, resulting in schooling of low quality, or through grants made to religious schools. In Pakistan, for example, many Islamic madrassahs, 92 percent of which are in rural areas, have become coeducational in order to benefit from government grants. But with very few women teachers and a commitment to traditional religious frameworks, it is not clear that these schools provide the kind of gender-sensitive education that fosters girls’ wider conceptions of citizenship.

The Content and Experience of Schooling

At the primary and secondary levels, most countries have reduced the number of gender stereotypes in their textbooks, and some have improved how their curricula represent women. But overall, schools have a long way to go. Sex education continues to emphasize physiology and anatomy rather than sexuality and gender relations. The official curriculum usually does not cover topics that profoundly challenge gender norms (such as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and abortion). While the number of courses in sex education has increased due to the presence of HIV/AIDS, these courses often portray sexuality as dangerous and fail to address prevailing practices among adolescents. Around the globe, conservative groups have opposed changes in sex education that might be effected through new texts and educational materials. In Latin America, for example, high Catholic authorities and their secular allies have exerted their influence to these ends in Argentina, Costa Rica, and Mexico (Stromquist 2006).

While many girls and their families see schools as supportive environments, in many cases, schools are also sites of gender violence. Although rarely reported through official channels, incidences of sexual harassment and abuse of female students by peers and teachers—as well as sexual harassment and abuse of female teachers by school administrators—are not uncommon. These practices are prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and account in part for girls’ decreased participation in school when they reach puberty.

Despite the acute need to address these negative contexts, teacher training programs fail to give full attention to gender issues, focusing instead on content, such as reading and math, that is subject to national and international testing. Consequently, a number of the conditions described above remain unchallenged and even unnoticed.

A Concern for Quality

As nations become more concerned about how their educational quality compares internationally, they increasingly use standardized tests for cross-country comparisons at the primary and secondary levels. Such comparisons, however, elicit few surprises. Predictably, students from richer countries demonstrate greater academic achievement than those in poorer countries. Likewise, students from wealthier families show greater academic achievement than students from poorer families: across the world, students from rich families read at levels between one and three grades higher than students from poor families. In Latin America, controlling for socioeconomic status, students from rural areas perform more weakly than urban students—another sign of the importance of context for learning (Ganimian and Rocha 2011).

International comparisons based on standardized testing find that, compared to differences by socioeconomic status and region, differences by gender are often less significant. Girls and boys show insignificant differences in math and reading performance in Latin America and Francophone Africa. In Anglophone Africa, some differences to the advantage of girls in reading and to the advantage of boys in math have appeared (Stromquist 2011). Nonetheless, in industrialized countries, the gender gap in reading and math performance is narrowing (Arnot, David, and Weiner 1999; Hyde and Mertz 2009)—a reflection of how changing expectations about participation in the labor force and a reduction in girls’ domestic duties influences educational achievement.

While countries are certainly collecting data on educational outcomes, in relatively few cases have their concerns about quality translated into corresponding social and educational initiatives to create better opportunities for disadvantaged groups. Some countries have implemented selective social interventions such as scholarships, financial aid to families, and free school uniforms, transportation, and meals. Some governments have attempted to provide in-service teacher training, tutors, extra classes, classroom libraries, and free textbooks. But seldom have these measures been gender-sensitive.

Persistent Obstacles to Girls’ Schooling

Industrialized countries and international agencies have promised crucial financial support to assist poor countries in achieving universal enrollment and gender parity in basic education. Such support has fallen behind: UNESCO estimates a $16 billion annual gap in external support for basic education in low-income countries.

Meanwhile, the current forces of globalization have increased demand for women’s labor and have thus improved conditions for feminist ideas and values to take root. Many women who previously did not participate in the labor force are now engaged in low-cost semi-skilled labor in developing countries’ electronics manufacturing and other assembly industries (Carnoy 2000). While women still do not earn as much as men and while they still face a double burden—adding participation in the paid labor force to their domestic work—access to independent income improves women’s opportunities for independent decision making.

Nonetheless, some women still lack access to the educational opportunities that would improve their status within the labor market and within the world at large. The explicit and hidden costs of schooling, for example, are particularly prohibitive for low-income girls. A survey of seventy-nine very low-income countries found that 97 percent charged some type of student fees and that 38 percent charged tuition fees (Kattan and Burnett 2004), which means that in most parts of the world primary education is not really free.

Higher Education

Demand for tertiary education has grown enormously across the contemporary world in recent years. Yet access to tertiary education remains uneven across and within nations, regions, and continents. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of tertiary students throughout the world doubled, from 40.3 million to 80.5 million (World Bank 2000). Much of this expansion occurred through private institutions of widely varying quality and status. Thus while more people have access to higher education than ever before, they do not all have access to the social status higher education traditionally conveyed.

In industrialized countries and in Latin America, the number of female students in higher education has surpassed that of male students. Some have interpreted this as the consequence of too much attention paid to girls’ education to the detriment of boys. In reality, more women than men are currently pursuing higher education because men have access to more and better remunerated jobs that do not require higher levels of education, such as in technological fields where women are underrepresented.

In some countries, the increasing number of women in higher education comes with clear disadvantages, such as overrepresentation among contingent faculty. In 2005 in the United States, women held 57 percent of full-time instructor or lecturer positions, compared to only 25 percent of full professorships (Schuster and Finkelstein 2006; West and Curtis 2006). Moreover, 30 percent of full-time female faculty members were in non-tenure-track positions, compared to 18 percent of full-time male faculty members. As contingent faculty, both women and men hold unstable jobs, carry higher teaching loads, have little time for research, often lack health insurance and retirement benefits, and are unlikely to be promoted—all conditions they have little influence to change given contingent faculty’s limited participation in institutional governance.

Literacy and Adult Education

Governmental self-reporting suggests that there are approximately 759 million illiterate people in the world (UIS 2010), but literacy scholars suspect that the true number is actually twice as large (Manzoor 2011). With a considerable number of children out of school, the world will continue to be characterized by large groups of dispossessed people unless some kind of educational intervention occurs.

Despite literacy’s value in the current global age, and even as women are participating in higher education in greater numbers, women’s representation among the world’s illiterate people remains high. Although illiteracy varies considerably, in six of eight world regions (the Arab States, Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, South/West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa), women are at least two-thirds of all illiterate people age fifteen and older (UIS 2010). This gender disparity has been resistant to change and is a consequence of persistent disadvantages rural women encounter in gaining regular access to schooling.

To achieve gender equity, it is thus imperative to attend to adult women’s non-formal education. Although the global education policies cited above acknowledge this imperative, governments nonetheless continue to marginalize adult education. Those in favor of adult education strongly believe that governments should assign at least 6 percent of their education budgets to adult education, as opposed to the 1 to 3 percent that is currently standard (UNESCO 2009). But in the context of present global and economic discourses that define economic competitiveness in relation to formal higher education, this is unlikely to happen.

Final Thoughts

Girls’ access to primary education—and, to a lesser extent, secondary education—is reaching parity with that of boys. Yet although gender gaps are decreasing overall, substantial inequalities emerge when data is disaggregated by ethnicity and location as well as gender. And while stakeholders regularly express concerns about educational quality, they rarely accompany these concerns with sufficient investment to offset the costs of girls’ lost educational opportunities.

Pervasive social beliefs about women’s and men’s proper places in society still shape people’s conceptions of their possible life and career trajectories. Schools tend to reproduce these gender ideologies, and educators rarely problematize content taught to girls and boys. Meanwhile, men continue to fill more varied and numerous roles in the public sphere, while women often remain relegated to the private sphere and its domestic responsibilities. Traditional gender ideologies are stronger and more resistant to change in countries with limited wealth and weak infrastructural capacity. Conservative religious beliefs are also influential in constraining women’s roles. In addition, gender interacts with other social variables such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, and location to compound the effects of disenfranchisement.

With the exception of math performance in some countries, girls’ academic performance equals or exceeds that of boys. Clearly, then, differential cognitive abilities are not the cause of women and girls’ continued marginalization. To understand education’s role in both reproducing and transforming gender relations, educators and policymakers need to consider the totality of the schooling experience: curricula, instructional methodologies, peer relations, extracurricular activities, and the hidden curriculum’s messages about authority and power. Unfortunately, both governments and international development agencies are still reluctant to address these issues. Until they do, gender parity in access will not translate into full social, political, and economic equality.


Arnot, Madeleine, Miriam David, and Gaby Weiner. 1999. Closing the Gender Gap. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Carnoy, Martin. 2000. “Globalization and Educational Reform.” In Globalization and Education: Integration and Contestation across Cultures, edited by Nelly Stromquist and Karen Monkman, 43–61. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ganimian, Alejandro J., and Alexandra Solano Rocha. 2011. Measuring Up? How Did Latin America and the Caribbean Perform on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)? Santiago: Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas.

Hyde, Janet S., and Janet E. Mertz. 2009. “Gender, Culture, and Mathematics Performance.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (22): 8801–07.

Kattan, Raja Bentaouet, and Nicholas Burnett. 2004. User Fees in Primary Education. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Manzoor, Ahmed. 2011. “Defining and Measuring Literacy: Facing the Reality.” International Review of Education 57: 179–95.

Schuster, Jack H., and Martin J. Finkelstein. 2006. The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stromquist, Nelly, ed. 2006. La construcción del género en las políticas públicas. Perspectivas comparadas desde América Latina. Lima, Peru: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos. 

———. 2011. “International Evidence on Gender Equality: Cognitive Achievement and Leadership Dimensions.” Keynote speech presented at Gender Equality in Education: An Evidence-Based Policy Forum, UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning, Paris.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). 2010. Global Education Digest 2010: Comparing Education Statistics across the World. Paris: UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

UNESCO. 2009. CONFINTEA VI: Sixth International Conference on Adult Education, Final Report. Paris: UNESCO.

West, Martha, and John W. Curtis. 2006. AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

World Bank. 2000. Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise. Washington, DC: Task Force on Higher Education in Society, World Bank.                                         

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