A Concerted Stride Towards Gender Equality in Education

Posted: 01 February 2024
By Arushi Terway, Senior Technical Advisor, KIX EMAP Hub, NORRAG
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Entrenched social norms and systemic barriers remain pervasive challenges to achieving gender equality in education; disparities in access, opportunities, and outcomes persist. Bridging the gender gap in education is critical for fostering social progress and economic development and empowering future generations. 

During the GPE KIX EMAP Hub Education Policy and Innovation Conference (EPIC) 2023, a distinguished panel of global experts — Anna Dobrowski from ACER, Elaine Unterhalter from the Institute of Education, UCL, Justine Sass from UNESCO, Sally Gear from the Global Partnership for Education, Shreyasi Jha from UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Region — provided insights into the complexities and constraints of instilling gender equality within educational systems around the world. I had the privilege of moderating an informative discussion with the panellists, where they provided their perspectives on challenges and the vision for a society that has achieved gender equality in education. In this blog, I have attempted to provide a concise summary of a very engaging conversation with the global leaders in gender equality. 

A Shared Vision for a Society with Gender Equality 

The panellists shared the vision for an education system where all children, regardless of gender, enjoyed equal access and opportunity to learn, allowing them to reach their full potential. They also emphasised that gender equality in education contributes to gender equality and overall development more broadly in society. 

Sally Gear started the discussion with a vision of society “where every child irrespective of gender has the opportunity to learn and thrive in education, we will certainly be more just, more equal and more peaceful.” Shreyasi Jha emphasised that equality will be achieved when “every child that graduates or finishes education has access to equal opportunities and is able to apply those knowledge and skills in a way that helps them to reach their full potential and aspirations and dreams.” Justin Sass added that children would have, “the power and agency to shape their lives and futures.” That by looking at “gender equality in and through education, you are looking at equality of access…the quality of learning…learning experience…and also at the equal education pathways.” Education can translate into broader societal gains, including participation in public life, decision-making, and access to decent work resources, facilitating greater autonomy and power. 

Anna Dobrowski envisioned a world where the concepts of gender equity and equality are broadly accepted and integrated into the larger society. She indicated that in the last few years, in many parts of the world, parental and community attitudes have changed towards gender equity and support for children from different gendered communities. However, this shift is not yet fully reflected in the education sector and support for children’s learning. She hopes to see “some of the narratives and the policy discourses coming out of the education sector being integrated into community perspectives.” 

Elaine Unterhalter brought up the link between gender equality in education “to a vision of justice and expanding and building human rights…thinking about women’s rights, girls’ rights and gender equality.” She urged us to draw insights from the women’s movement, the anti-apartheid movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and to find respect for knowledge and understanding from “many different locations in which people find themselves…to listen and engage with those aspects difference” and to ensure that the vision for “gender equality and education is not just from the top and it’s not just from the bottom, and it’s not just from the middle... it’s all those things interacting together.” 

Persisting Challenges in Achieving Gender Equality 

In realising the vision for gender equality in education and the larger society through education, the panellists collectively identified several challenges we still need to overcome. The speakers acknowledged that there is now recognition that global and national level actors need to direct resources and effort to address gender inequality. However, a narrow approach to gender equality has also created some impediments. 

A significant challenge discussed by the speakers was the oversimplification of the complexity of gender equality. Elaine Unterhalter pointed out that in many strategies, we “still [only] look at girls as a proportion of boys.” In several places where gender parity in enrolment has been achieved, policymakers assume that the country has achieved gender equality since “girls are doing better than boys, and we have more girls in schools than boys, and so we really shouldn’t be worried about this,” Shreyasi Jha elaborated. Even in these contexts, equal enrolment in primary school has not translated into girls’ enrolment in secondary or higher education, let alone equality in education and other social outcomes. She contended that “there’s huge amounts of gender biases that we find continue to exist in textbooks, curriculum, teaching methods, assessments, systems.” 

Speakers also brought our attention to countries experiencing a backlash and rejection of the global concepts of gender equality. Sally Gear underscored that the overall financing challenge in education, especially in contexts affected by violence or natural disasters, often translates into deprioritisation of gender equality. Justine Sass agreed with this perspective and added that she has observed “a massive swell of conservatism in so many different contexts…I think it’s really pushing us backwards”. She reflected that this is not just a challenge in conflict-affected regions, “it’s just so difficult to speak about anything related to rights, whether it be sexual and reproductive health and rights, whether it be women’s rights.” 

Elaine Unterhalter summarised the challenge identified by all speakers as the siloed approach to gender equality in education development. “Girls’ education is seen as this little pocket of interventions we can make instead of seeing it can connect with broader initiatives around curriculum or pedagogy; developing gender equality and health or housing or social protection.” 

All speakers agreed that we cannot be complacent about work in gender equality in education just because we have included it in global and national strategies; more attention needs to be given to socio-political complexities within each context to develop and implement programmes that address the societal norms. 

Towards a Holistic Approach to Gender Equality 

The speakers also provided an overview of how their organisations tackle gender equality. Links to the slides from the speakers have been provided below: 

·      Anna Dabrowski 

·      Elaine Unterhalter 

·      Justine Sass 

·      Sally Gear 

·      Shreyasi Jha 

While GPE, UNICEF, UNESCO, ACER, and the Institute of Education, UCL have been engaging in diverse interventions around gender equality, the speakers showed that they all follow a common set of principles and approaches to addressing the challenges and realising the vision of gender equality in education. 

  1. Focus on systemic challenges and structural inequalities: All organisations emphasise the need to understand the systemic challenges and structural inequalities that exist in education and society at large. This includes understanding the root causes of gender disparities in education while also considering factors like finance and capacity. 
  2. Intersectional and gender-transformative practices: Systemic change requires an intersectional approach to understanding and addressing gender inequality. It involves considering how various social, economic, and political factors intersect with gender issues and implementing gender-transformative practices that change underlying structures and relationships within governments and organisations. 
  3. Provision of data and research: Speakers emphasised the need to collect and analyse contextually informed data to help design holistic interventions. More data collection and research at the national and international levels need to be conducted that moves beyond examining gender parity in school enrolment and focuses on resources, opportunities, outcomes, values, and social norms, among others. 
  4. Collaborative and multi-stakeholder engagement: The speakers stressed the importance of collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagement, including working with education ministries, health ministries, women’s ministries, national statistical offices, gender activists, and university researchers. This collaborative approach ensures a comprehensive and diverse perspective on gender equality issues. 
  5. Focus on teacher support and development: As the agents of transformation in the classroom, there needs to be a strong focus on supporting teachers, both in their initial training (pre-service) and ongoing professional development (in-service). This includes equipping teachers with practical skills and resources to create inclusive environments and handle various challenges.

The panel discussion revealed that global experts and organisations continue to have a shared vision for gender equality in education and society as a whole. It is encouraging to see concerted and collaborative approaches that global organisations support within national and local contexts. The recognition and deeper understanding of the complexity of gender equality challenges, especially around social norms and differentiated perspectives, is now more important than ever to provide a holistic response to achieving equality for all genders. This panel discussion offers reflections on much needed comprehensive and multi-dimensional approaches that should be embedded in systemic change in order to address gender equality in education.