In recent years, OECD countries have made significant progress in narrowing or closing long-standing discrepancies in educational and job opportunities available to men and women. Yet, gender differences remain in a number of areas across the lifespan: boys still tend to outperform girls in mathematics; girls outperform boys in reading; more women than men now have a tertiary degree, but are still under-represented in better-paid fields, such as science and engineering; women also face lower employment rates and tend to be paid less than similarly educated men. Among 15-year-old students, stereotypical notions about girls not being good at math still persist according to the 2018 programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): girls are less likely than boys to believe in their abilities, especially in mathematics. This lack of self-confidence may be one of the first fissures that widen into the gender gap in students’ pathways towards science-related careers.
This may be related to the fact that parents hold different aspirations for their sons and daughters: they are more likely to expect their sons to pursue a career in math-related fields, thus reinforcing certain types of segregation in the labour market. At the highest levels of education, women also tend to be slightly under-represented: more advanced degrees are still awarded to men than to women.
Among boys, new challenges emerge: whereas girls are doing better in reading and attaining tertiary education at higher rates, boys are over-represented in pre-vocational and vocational programmes and are falling behind in certain areas thus revealing a reversal in some traditional gender gaps. While there are still more boys than girls among top performers in mathematics, 15-year-old boys are failing to achieve basic proficiency in reading, mathematics, and science at greater rates than girls, according to the 2015 PISA study. This is worrisome as low performers tend to be less motivated and leave school early.
Gender discrepancies in opportunities and skills from early on may have long-term consequences for individuals that go beyond social and economic outcomes: they can predict a number of health outcomes and even affect life expectancy. But with deliberate efforts, gender gaps in education and in the labour market can be successfully reduced and even eliminated as further demonstrated by findings from the 2015 OECD Survey of Adult Skills. The survey shows no significant differences in literacy proficiency between young men and young women and only small gender differences in numeracy proficiency among the youth when compared to the entire adult population. This is certainly a welcome reminder that differences in performance are not determined by innate differences in ability and that efforts to undo gender inequalities do pay off.
India’s new National Education Policy 2020, or NEP, released last month, which the government has said is geared “towards the demands of the 21st century” might in fact be a setback for girls’ education, she says.
Despite some progressive provisions in the policy, which promises an an overhaul of the education system — the first such move in 34 years — such as a Gender Inclusion Fund toward equitable education for girls as well as transgender students and a substantial increase in public investment to bring education spending to 6% of gross domestic product, there are growing concerns about its implications on girls’ education.
“I fear it will be harder to convince families to send their children to school, because schools will become unaffordable and girls will start dropping out. Child marriage and child labor will increase,” said Rehman, who works at Navbharat Samaj Kalyan Samity, an organization that works on community development in 500 villages of western Uttar Pradesh.
She is referring to a provision in the new policy that boosts public-private partnership in education — with this, there are concerns that many schools will become privatized and will no longer be free and accessible to all. Low-income families will not be able to afford school fees, which may impact girls more.
“A whole generation is at the risk of being wiped out because the policy is based on exclusion.”
— Madhu Prasad, spokesperson, All India Forum for Right to Education
Experts and community workers say this is one of the many features of the NEP which will likely exacerbate the divide in private education and alienate girls from marginalized communities.
Barriers in accessing education
The policy recommends whittling down the number of colleges from 40,000 to 15,000 degree-granting institutions, which experts say will be done through corporate mergers with private players, signalling a higher burden of fee on students.
For Vandana Bharti, 17, who lives in a village in Kushinagar district in Uttar Pradesh, getting to school has never been easy. But being able to access higher education will become impossible, she says.
“I walk to my school, which is 4 kilometres away from my home. There is no government school close by, and we couldn’t afford the admission fee to the private school,” said Bharti, who belongs to the Dalit community, which historically belongs to the lowest rung in the Indian caste system.
People from the community are still heavily discriminated against and are forced to do menial work such as manual scavenging, with low or no access to education, health care, or minimum wages.
Finally, an NGO offered monetary help. But studying beyond school will not be possible anymore as “colleges are too far and we can’t afford it anyway”, Bharti said.
With schools shut across India due to COVID-19, Bharti has no access to digital schooling due to poor internet coverage. Reeta Kaushik, secretary at Samudaik Kalyan Evam Vikas Sansthan, an NGO that supports the rights of Dalit women and children, who helped Bharti enrol in the private school, said a recent survey of 500 families in their area revealed that just 8% girls have access to a device.
She added that most of the Dalit girls she supports will be left behind due to the new policy’s stress on digital education, without any reference to the infrastructure work needed to make this shift.
A report by the National Commission For Protection of Child Rights indicates that 40% of girls in the 15-18 age bracket are out of school. Accessibility, affordability, and patriarchal social structures are the most significant barriers.
“A whole generation is at the risk of being wiped out because the policy is based on exclusion,” said Madhu Prasad, spokesperson at the All India Forum for Right to Education.
Exclusion happens on many levels. For example, the policy doesn’t address the issue of gender, said Jyotsna Jha, director at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies.
It says the Gender Inclusion Fund will be available to states based on priorities decided by the center. What does that mean? It doesn’t talk about girls’ education, only gender identity and sensitivity, respect for women, the idea of sacrifice but it undermines the whole issue of gender discrimination and reforms for equity in education.”
Dilution of existing norms
A major worry for experts is the threat to neighborhood schools, so far a boon for girls who cannot travel far from home to study and one of the reasons for the rise in school enrolments in the last few years.
The policy talks about a consolidation of school complexes, so schools with too few students will be shut down. “How will the state and union government determine rationalization without compromising on accessibility?” asked Anubhuti Patra, the India representative at the Malala Fund.
Past trends show that this approach of consolidation has led to school closures in several states. “Increased distances to schools have often been the reason behind girls dropping out of school or not enrolling altogether,” she added.
Significantly, rationalizing distances to school to 5-10 km, as the policy does, is a dilution of Right To Education norms. According to the RTE forum, 1,47,494 schools had been closed by 2017 in 13 states. Ambarish Rai, convener at the RTE Forum, estimated about 25% of the existing schools in India will be shut down when the policy’s consolidation provision is implemented.
The closure of primary schools and the establishment of school complexes — a cluster of around 30 public schools from foundational to secondary stage within a limited area — will endanger access. It may lead to an excessive dependence on measures like Open School, the national distance learning program.
“Any overemphasis on open learning for girls legitimizes domesticity. It means the girls who opt for it will have a degree, but won’t be mobile. It will control their freedom. Open learning has potential, but a mixed approach may work better,” Centre for Budget and Policy Studies’ Jha added.
What many were hoping the policy would highlight are ways to tackle violence against girls in educational institutions, to make them safer spaces.
“The policy claims to be aligned with Sustainable Development Goals, gender parity, yet it does not have a word on child protection, despite a rise in number of child sexual abuse cases reported by school authorities,” said Kumar Shailabh, co-director at the Haq Child Rights Centre.
There are other glaring gaps that may push girls to the periphery. Introducing vocational training in grade 6, when children are age 11, is a calculated move linked to the 2016 child labor amendment act that said children can work in family enterprises after school hours that legitimizes child labor, according to Shailabh.
On the flipside, Mahamaya Navlakha of the Arthan Foundation, which trains children on soft skills, thinks the emphasis on early vocational training may enable girls to be better groomed for work opportunities and boost female labor force participation, which stood at just 21% in 2019.
The debates around the policy have pushed nonprofits to rethink strategies.
“One of the major challenges would be towards transition of girls from primary to secondary. The policy doesn’t talk about extension of the RTE Act to cover 15-18 year olds, where the poorest rates of transition takes place as their low accessibility to schools leads to high cost of transportation. The number of secondary schools are already low and girls have to pay a fee to study there — an investment that parents are in many case[s] unable to make,” Malala Fund’s Patra said.
Shailabh added that post pandemic, one of the challenges will be monitoring the fiscal resource allocation toward strengthening girls’ education. Rehman and Kaushik’s work in villages is cut out too: They are back to travelling from door to door, trying to tackle pandemic-related dropouts to bring the girls back to books.
Dr. Mamta Singh
B.A | B.Ed | M.A | Persuing M.Ed
School Principal at Rahul Education, Queen Mary’s High School
Men participated more in an active learning course in science, technology, engineering and math, while women reported lower perceptions of their scientific abilities, were more aware of gender identity and more likely to feel judged based on gender, a new Cornell-led study has found.
Education enables girls and boys, women and men to participate in social, economic and political life and is a base for development of a democratic society. Education can be crucial to changing attitudes into accepting gender equality as a fundamental social value.
Achieving gender equality in education means that boys and girls will have equal opportunities to realize their full human rights and contribute to and benefit from economic, social, cultural, and political development
Teachers are important starting points for promoting gender equality in education as their attitudes and instructional practices are known to influence students’ motivation and performance substantially.
Gender inequality in curriculum exposes indications that female and male learners are not treated equally in various types of curriculum. There are two types of curricula: formal and informal. Formal curricula are introduced by a government or an educational institution.
- Educate Senior Leadership.
- Hire and Promote.
- Fight Biases.
- Evaluate Work Assignments.
- Show Them the Money.
- Practice Social Inclusion.
- Help with Work/Life Management.
Gender equality is when people of all genders have equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Gender equality prevents violence against women and girls. It’s essential for economic prosperity. Societies that value women and men as equal are safer and healthier.
Gender equality means that women and men have equal conditions for realizing their full human rights and potential to contribute to national, political, economic, social and cultural development, and to benefit from the results.
Within these overarching categories, policies can address: recruitment and advancement processes to ensure quality between women and men; equal pay for equal work; recognition and rewards that are unbiased and based on contribution and performance; non-discriminatory approaches to care and family responsibilities.
Gender inequality in education likely affects education indirectly, through different channels such as by lowering the fertility rate, increasing the life span of the population, and increasing social cohesion.