For those of us working in the education sector, gender equality is a critical development outcome we want to see. Several years of advocacy has seen gender parity being achieved in elementary and even secondary school enrollments.
However, from thereon, things do not look so rosy in terms of large gender gaps. At a recent workshop, I argued that gender equality in secondary education is critical to gender equality in tertiary education, labor markets and in societies. Typically, in most developing countries, despite substantial progress in getting girls into school, there is still a huge distance to be covered in ensuring that girls complete the full secondary cycle. According to the Global Partnership for Education, one extra year of secondary raises women’s earnings by 15-25%; 1% increase of girls’ secondary education increases per capita GDP by 0.3%. PLAN International has estimated that some countries lose more than $ 1 billion a year by failing to educate girls to the same extent as boys. Gender equality in secondary education is a crucial base for greater economic empowerment, more jobs, higher productivity as well as stronger, better and fairer growth. Gender equality at secondary stage also has an array of social returns – delay in marriage, better health, more investments in the education and health of children and promotion of rights of women and girls.
Inequalities and vulnerabilities that women face in the labor market can be traced back to their education and skills development. Women do not do as well as men in terms of access to technical and vocational education and training. Even when they do, their choice of disciplines is vastly different from that of men. While men may go for mechanical, welding, printing, automotive, electronics, computers and so on, women go for training in culinary, housekeeping, front office, food and beverage and similar occupations. This comes about from a complex web of social, cultural and economic factors. There are well-entrenched cultural expectations of the roles women ought to play and sex-stereotyping of occupations that lead to such differences. But it is by breaking through such barriers can we ensure equal opportunities to women in the labor market. Women are often concentrated in unskilled and semi-skilled and low-paying occupations. In South Asia, as per ILO, 84% of women are in vulnerable employment.
Evidence on average appears to indicate that boys perform better than girls in maths while girls perform better in reading. This phenomenon is true even in OECD countries. A recent study by McKinsey points out the US scores last of 9 countries surveyed where universities are most likely to attract high-flying women to the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Just 4 percent of US women identified as high performers study STEM subjects, compared to 57% in India, 37% in Morocco and 25% in Turkey. We need to help girls and parents overcome cultural and social barriers that contribute to gender stereotyping in occupations. This requires interventions to adjust curricula and teaching materials to portray women through powerful role models. Someone at the workshop asked me whether it is a good thing to lay emphasis on recruiting female teachers. I believe it is, as there is evidence of its positive influence on girls completing secondary schooling.
But there is more to female employment in male dominated occupations than just school education. There is need for increasing access to technical training for women in high growth and modern economy occupations. A recent paper in the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology points out women could be trapped in dead-end, low paying and low-skills jobs in what would be deemed an advanced occupation such as ICT. Similarly, even in low-end occupations such as construction work, women could use skills development to improve their position in the workplace. I heard the inspirational story of the Karmika School for Construction Workers established by the well-known Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). After training in Karmika school, women reported greater confidence in going to work, better negotiation with contractors and less verbal and sexual abuse (I did not hear better wages though!). Even construction giants such as Larsen and Toubro found it difficult to create good working conditions for women in their sites with washrooms, let alone better wages. Yet millions of women continue to be employed in the construction industry as a whole. There can be out-of-the-box approaches. For instance, a residential school for girls in a remote tribal district in India found that training girls in competitive sports had an unexpected educational outcome – of making them want to finish middle school and enroll for secondary school. This was a result of a great boost in self-confidence that playing competitive sports instilled in the girls!
However, we need to think of skills ++ if gender bias is to be tackled - advocacy at the work place, social protection, and career counseling.