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Closing the education gender gap worldwide

Three Lao girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book. Wikipedia

By Amy VanderZanden, special to Humanosphere

One of the international community’s primary anti-poverty and pro-equity goals has been to increase the proportion of children receiving education, starting with ensuring all children at least get a primary education.

UN education ratesSignificant progress has been made in many parts of the world, as the U.N. graphic to the right indicates. But more than 50 million children, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, still do not attend even primary school.

This week, in South Korea, thousands have gathered for the 2015 World Education Forum to explore how to get more kids in school. The World Bank announced it would be putting $5 billion toward making sure this translates into a meaningful education and not just filling seats.

But it will also be important to make sure these efforts close the gender gap in education.

There have been a number of stories, in Humanosphere and elsewhere, about the education gap between girls and boys globally, and the dearth of data examining the difference in educational attainment between genders.

We need comprehensive and timely data to help us understand the progress women and girls are making – or not – in gaining equality and empowerment. Data on health, education, political access and economic independence are all important to help citizens and policymakers alike determine how far we have come in terms of equal rights and what more we need to be doing.

A comprehensive analysis known as the No Ceilings Report, published last month, contains some of the most detailed data available on many of these topics. And yet many of its indicators were incomplete. An educational attainment indicator – average years of schooling – contained substantial data gaps in time and geography.

To try to improve our grasp on what we know, and what we don’t, the research organization I work for recently issued a report “A Hand Up: Global Progress Toward Universal Education” and a new interactive data visualization to help us gain perspective on education in a way not previously been possible – across time, place, and sex, from 1970 to today.

Educational attainment among 15- to 24-year-old females, 2015

Amy education gender gap

Source: IHME Global Educational Attainment 1970–2015. To explore the data visualization online, go to  

Its takeaway is impressive:

“In all countries, the ratio of male to female educational attainment has decreased since 1970,” according to A Hand Up, “indicating global movements toward greater gender equity in education.”

While men still achieve more total years of schooling than women in many countries, the report demonstrates that the current generation of young women is on track to overtake men in much of the Americas, Europe, Asia – and in many countries in Southern and Eastern sub-Saharan Africa.

To be able to peel back the layers and discern what is going on within countries shows us as much about the variation in global progress – and the inequalities faced even within nominally successful places. A Hand Up does just this, giving us detailed insight into changes in education within China, a country renowned for its unprecedented economic development over the same period.

At the national level, China was fairly successful at improving educational attainment for both men and women between 1970 and 2014 – it wasn’t a global leader, but was certainly able to keep pace with other developing countries.

When we zoom in to the provincial level, though, we see vast differences in educational achievement depending on geography. By 2014, adults in major urban areas like Beijing received as many years of education as adults in Latin America and Eastern Europe – while men and women in Tibet more closely resembled Niger or South Sudan in terms of access to education.

Educational attainment among adults in China’s provinces, 1970 and 2014

China subnational education

Source: A Hand Up: Global Progress Toward Universal Education.

Education is still just one constituent of increased gender equality and empowerment – and no guarantee of it. It’s not inevitable that socioeconomic or political improvements will come hand-in-hand with increased education, and China is an important example of this.

Nonetheless, the insights we can gain with high-quality contextual data like educational attainment are legion. Gender equality is intertwined with and dependent on so much – health, education, income, environment, social context. Data and tools like these can help equip leaders in decision making and in learning from other countries’ successes.

Amy VanderZandenAmy VanderZanden is a communications data specialist at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).


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