Promoting gender equality in and through education: a public policy priority

Dr. Caroline Manion Education & Youth Development NEWS & ANALYSIS

Access to and completion of a quality basic education is widely accepted as a fundamental human right and a key way for citizens to gain valued knowledge, including learning the skills and attitudes necessary to lead an active, engaged and productive life. Over the past 25+ years, the global community has sought to prioritize educational development as a key strategy for national development and economic growth. The strength and scope of the global Education for All movement, begun in 1990 at the First World Conference on Education in Jomtien, Thailand and reaffirmed at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal in 2000 was phenomenal. The success of this movement and the inclusion of education as a goal and indicator in the Millennium Development Goals framework, and more recent Sustainable Development Goals agenda, attest to the continued importance of education as a key driver of national and global development and security.

However, given the importance of education for development, it is deeply concerning that despite the progress achieved over the years in terms of expanding enrollment, particularly at the primary/basic levels, so many children and youth remain out of school around the world, the majority of whom are girls. Moreover, beyond the challenge of ensuring that all children have the opportunity to attend school is the matter of how schooling is experienced differently by boys and girls and what this means for gender equality in terms of retention, attainment, quality learning and educational outcomes.

The need to address gender-based inequalities that limit girls’ schooling opportunities, experiences and outcomes is supported by evidence demonstrating a wide range of valuable individual, social and economic benefits associated with girls’ and women’s education. For example, for every year of primary schooling she receives, a girl’s earning potential increases by 10 to 20%, and for every year of secondary education the increase is between 15 and 25%1. As further quantified evidence of the extrinsic value of girls’ education, a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five2, and educated mothers are more than twice as likely to send their children to school (according to UNICEF). Beyond the extrinsic values associated with girls’ education in terms of how much more an educated woman can do for her family, community and country are the intrinsic values of education as a human right and what it means to the individual person in terms of their own human and personal development.

The purpose of this short piece is to provide a snapshot of contemporary gender and education issues/trends and the policy options available to governments and their partners that can support the elimination of gender inequalities in schooling in the sub-Saharan and North African regions. Despite differences in socioeconomic, cultural, religious and political contexts, gender inequality in education is a recognized global phenomenon and as such represents a shared challenge amongst nations of the world. Before discussing contemporary gender (in)equality trends and challenges and the available policy responses, I first offer a brief conceptual discussion of key analytical and measurement terms.

Distinguishing between “sex” and “gender” difference

To start with, the concept of gender is not synonymous with “sex” or “girls” or “women”. When we speak of sex differences, we are referring to the biological differences between males and females; when we speak of gender differences, we are referring to the socially defined and enacted differences between women and men in terms of characteristics, capabilities, roles, etc. We learn our gender roles through socialization practices in our families, communities and schools. Over the past 15 years or so there has been a movement in the scholarly literature to better understand the nature and significance of various masculinities or femininities in relation to educational access, retention/attainment, learning and outcomes.

The concept of gender stereotype refers to attitudes and beliefs about the characteristics associated with, and the activities appropriate to, men or women in a given community or society. Gender bias occurs when people make assumptions or stereotypes about behaviours, abilities or preferences based on gender. For example, gender-based assumptions concerning girls’ future roles as wives and mothers can shape what is learned in school and to what level. Yet, despite the deeply entrenched and taken-for-granted nature of gender, recognizing that gender roles and gender identities are socially rooted and performed brings us to the powerful conclusion that gender norms and values can and do change. The significance of this realization cannot be over-stated as it suggests that we have the power to address gender-based inequalities in schools and through schooling.

Distinguishing between “gender parity” and “gender equality”

While the concepts of gender equality and gender equity are often used interchangeably in international and national development frameworks and policy, gender parity has dominated as a key indicator of progress towards gender equality in education. A key theme in current scholarship and policy advocacy concerns the limits of pursuing gender parity – or the achievement of “equal participation of girls and boys in all forms of education based on their proportion in the relevant age-groups in the population”3 – and instead suggests the need to re-calibrate our compasses to focus more on gender equality and equity and less on gender parity.

Gender equality, emphasizing sameness, refers to the provision of equal conditions, treatment and opportunity for both men and women to realize their full potential, whereas gender equity emphasizes difference and refers to the process of being fair to men and women. What gender equity is and how to achieve it involves value judgments, understanding of the different experiences, positions and needs of different women and men in a society, and the recognition that treating individuals or groups equitably sometimes means treating them differently.

Gender (in)equality in education: trends and challenges

Notwithstanding emergent concerns with issues of boys’ education, promoting girls’ education has been a global policy priority because this has and continues to be the area where the need is greatest. The sub-Saharan African region, despite showing a gender parity index (GPI) increase from 0.85 to 0.92 between 1999 and 2012, remains the furthest from achieving gender parity at this level4. Close to three quarters of the countries with fewer than 90 girls for every 100 boys enrolled in primary education were in the sub-Saharan Africa regionibid.. The situation is worse at the secondary level, with the average GPI only increasing from 0.82 to 0.84 between 1999-2012ibid.. And again, almost three quarters of the countries considered to be far from achieving gender parity at the secondary level are in the SSA region. Indeed, worrying trends in terms of girls’ (and some boys’) transition to and completion of secondary education is the main focus of gender equality in education research and policy advocacy.

The challenges to achieving gender equality in education have been well documented over the past decades and continue to persist in the contemporary moment. In terms of challenges related to demand-side factors, we know that poverty, labour market structures/employment opportunities, gendered socio-cultural expectations and practices (e.g., early marriage/pregnancy, domestic work burdens) and security concerns continue to represent some of the greatest barriers to girls’ (and some boys’) education. With respect to supply-side factors of gender (in)equalities in education, we know that school and classroom cultures, teachers, teaching and learning materials, the physical condition of schools, and the overall policy landscape (e.g., presence of equity policies, anti-sexual harassment policies, etc.), all shape the degree to which gender equality and equity is enacted (or otherwise) in school systems.

Linking school and society, or supply- and demand-side barriers, gender-based violence (GBV) has become an urgent policy concern over the past decade:

“Gender-based violence [GBV] may take a psychological, physical and/or sexual form and relates to the enforcing or upholding of power imbalances between the sexes… It [GBV] acts of sexual, physical or psychological violence inflicted on children in and around schools because of stereotypes and roles or norms attributed to or expected of them because of their sex or gendered identity. It also refers to the differences between girls’ and boys’ experience of and vulnerabilities to violence”.5

GBV manifests itself in a range of school setting and interactions, including but not limited to teachers sexually harassing and/or assaulting students, students harassing or assaulting other students, victim blaming, early marriage/pregnancy, and punishing individuals for failing to conform to gender role expectations. GBV has a high social and economic price in terms of parents not wanting to send their children to school, in that it often leads to dropping out of school, causes psychological trauma with long-term and unpredictable consequences, in addition to pregnancy, disease and injury6,7.

Policy responses for the promotion and achievement of gender equality in education

There are five main principles or patterns underpinning successful gender equality in education approaches8. First, partnership approaches that bring together governments, donors and civil society are key. Second, is the need for enacting multiple and multi-sectoral interventions to address the complex demand and supply-side challenges to girls’ education and gender equality in education more broadly. Third, there is a need for strategic and evidence-based policy advocacy and support for continued research, monitoring and evaluation. Fourth, there must be commitment on the part of governments and their partners to the promotion of gender equality in education. Fifth, governments, with the support of donors and civil society, must ensure adequate and sustainable education financing ibid.

Research suggests that successful policies address change and drive action in three main interconnected areas: interventions, institutions and interactions 8,9. The following offers a brief discussion of exemplars of policy responses associated with each of the preceding action areas.


The concept of “interventions” refers to specific policy levers that can be used to promote access to education, addressing both demand- and supply-side challenges to gender equality in schools. The building of more schools and the recruitment of more teachers, including more women teachers to act as positive role models, is one relatively straightforward way governments can support educational access. Limiting the distance that children ‒ girls in particular ‒ have to travel to get to school can go a long way to addressing the security concerns of parents. Innovative interventions have included pairing volunteers from the community with children to walk with them to and from school to ensure their safety.

Reforms aimed at improving the quality of education are also an important part of stimulating demand for schooling. Such reforms can include the improvement of school facilities (e.g., ensuring access to clean water and secure and separate toilet facilities) and the provision of adequate and effective teaching and learning materials10. Gender-responsive teacher training, both in-service and pre-service, is also seen as an effective way to support gender equitable teaching and learning in the long term, and as such represents a valuable policy lever available to governments and an area for serious investment.

An excellent resource for governments and an example of good practice is the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE)’s Gender Responsive School model, “where the academic, social and physical environments of the school and local community recognize the specific needs of both boys and girls”2. For example, the innovative model supports the “development of gender‐responsive pedagogy, which focuses on lesson planning, language use, classroom interactions, and the role of management in supporting gender-responsive approaches in schools. It targets practical skills as well as the training of school management teams”ibid..

Promoting the establishment of school-based clubs (e.g., school governance/student councils, girls’ and boys’ clubs, science clubs, etc.) and other venues for participation and the development of self-esteem and leadership skills is an effective component of inclusive and gender-responsive learning environments. A further supply-side intervention to support gender equality in education is curriculum reform and textbook revision to remove gender bias and promote gender awareness.

To address constraints related to poverty and marginalization ‒ two of the most serious challenges to gender equality in education – several demand-side interventions have proven quite successful in getting more girls (and marginalized boys) into school. First, the elimination of school fees has been critically important. Second, many governments offer financial subsidies to help off-set the direct and indirect costs of schooling for the most vulnerable groups, particularly girls. Conditional cash transfer (CCT) incentive schemes are a more recent policy innovation that have been used with considerable success in a number of sectors, including education, to change behaviour and promote gender equality in education. Additionally, the documented success of school-based feeding programs and reproductive health education (as well as other child-health supportive programming) support the claim that multiple and multi-sectoral interventions are necessary to address educational challenges related to poverty.


Enacting and promoting gender equality in education involves institutional reform and transformation. Gender mainstreaming and gender-responsive budgeting represent two of the most important policy approaches that governments have adopted to demonstrate their commitment to the realization of gender equality in education and beyond. Institutional reform also covers the need to develop strong monitoring, accountability and enforcement mechanisms for successful policy implementation and development.

The collection of sufficient and appropriate data concerning participation, gender relations, context, experience, learning and outcomes is critical here, and a commitment to the collection and analysis of sex-disaggregated data is of paramount importance for monitoring progress and identifying challenges to the achievement of gender equality in education. Effective enforcement mechanisms are also needed to ensure, among other things, the implementation of gender equality policies, including anti-sexual harassment policies and others aimed at combating gender-based violence in schools.


More recent research and advocacy has sought to highlight the importance of engaging all stakeholders – government, school administrators, teachers, parents and students – in gender equality in education policy processes, a critical component of which is dialogue and debate. Value differences associated with varying socio-economic, political and cultural contexts are a reality and such differences need to be recognized and engaged in order for societies to develop the policies that best reflect the needs and aspirations of the communities they serve. Thus, reforming policy processes to create genuine spaces for dialogue and debate represents a further critical component of gender equality in education strategies. In addition to the creation and support of Parent-Teacher Associations, School Management Committees and the like, national and regional forums must be established where actors can come together to take stock, assess challenges, identify assets and plan accordingly for taking the necessary actions to achieve gender equality in and through education.

Given that education is a human right and a cornerstone of human and national socio-economic development, promoting gender equity in and through education ought to remain a policy priority for governments, donors and civil society in the 21st century. It is hoped that the trends, challenges and strategies discussed above can help support and guide effective gender equity policy and practice going forward.

Written by

Dr. Caroline (Carly) Manion is an adjunct professor at OISE, University of Toronto in the Comparative, International and Development Education (CIDE) collaborative degree program. With over 15 years of research and teaching experience in the broad area of gender and education, Caroline has examined the scope and nature of gender-based inequalities in education, their connections with social, economic and political processes, and a variety of policy responses in North American and African school systems and classrooms. Caroline currently serves as co-chair of the Comparative and International Education Society’s Gender and Education Committee as well as the CIDE representative for the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative’s Global Advisory Committee.