STORY June 3, 2024 Anna Bonfert and Divyanshi Wadhwa

Tracing global trends in education: a tale of old and new gender gaps

Advances in education across the world have been one of the most inspiring development successes over the last 50 years. Girls, who historically had very low levels of education and who consistently lagged boys, are now educated at far higher levels than at any other point in history. While girls have been catching up on opportunities, challenges remain. At the same time new gaps have emerged in learning outcomes – in virtually all countries for which we have data, boys have higher rates of learning poverty than girls do.

Celebrating Successes in Global Education

Sustainable Development Goal 4 commits all signatory countries to ensure that, by 2030, “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education.” Most countries in the world have achieved universal primary education. Girls and boys have gained access to primary school at unprecedented levels, with each age cohort surpassing the enrollment rates of the previous one.

To date, more than two-thirds of all countries have reached gender parity in primary school enrollment. In many countries, secondary enrollments rates for females surpass those of their male peers. At the tertiary level, female enrollment rates exceed male rates by more than 5 percentage points in over 100 countries.

Once in school, boys and girls face different barriers to completing their educational journey. In low-income countries on average about 66 percent of female primary school students complete primary school, compared to around 71 percent of male primary school students.

At the lower secondary level, the gap in completion rates varies significantly by country income classification. In high, middle, and upper-middle income countries completion rates are higher for girls than boys. Since the 1980s there has been a remarkable spurt of female completion rates in lower middle-income countries and in 2012 female completion rates had completely caught up with the male rate.

However, girls in low-income countries continue to trail their male peers in lower secondary completion rates, with only 38 percent of girls completing lower secondary school compared to 43 percent of boys. Encouragingly though, the gender gap in secondary completion rates in low-income countries has consistently fallen since 2014.

Poverty is one of the most important factors for determining whether girls can access and complete their education (Bank 2024). Girls who face intersecting disadvantages stemming from low family income, living in remote or underserved communities, disability or minority status tend to be farthest behind in terms of access to and completion of education. For example, fewer than 1 percent of rural young women belonging to the poorest 20 percent of households complete secondary school in 20 countries with data available, including many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa but also Belize, Haiti, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea (UNESCO 2020).

School dropouts among girls are often associated with the onset of adolescence. Between 10 to 30 percent of girls dropping out of school can be attributed to early marriage or a pregnancy, depending on the country (Wodon et al 2017). An estimated 640 million girls and women alive today were married before they turned 18 years old (UNICEF 2023). Other reasons for school dropout among girls include lack of access to adequate menstrual hygiene management, safety concerns including related to sexual assault and harassment, and long distances to secondary schools. Keeping girls in school is critical to continue building on the successes of the global education expansion. Cash transfers have been shown to be effective at delaying marriage and keeping girls in school (Halim et al 2023).

Poverty is also a main driver of boys’ disadvantages in education. Economic pressures may prematurely pull boys into the labor force interrupting or upending their education. Gender norms may also act to boy’s detriment by reinforcing behaviors and expectations that do not align with academic performance (UNESCO 2018), Much research on the effect of social norms has focused on the concept of “hegemonic masculinity” (Saavedra et al 2022). Characteristics such as disruption and resisting authority can be motivated by masculinity identity characteristics, whereas reading and other seemingly passive activities that conducive to a successful academic experience are sometimes considered “effeminate” (Welmond and Gregory 2021).

The unfinished agenda

Despite global advances in education, important challenges to getting girls into school and ensuring that all children learn remain. An inexcusably large number of children are still deprived of access to education opportunities and too many pupils are facing quality constraints. Insufficient literacy skills can limit their ability to take advantage of employment opportunities and to participate fully in society.

Too many girls remain out of school

Globally, it is estimated that 244 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 were out of school in 2021, unable to benefit from the lifelong impact of formal schooling (UNESCO 2022). The UNESCO estimates confirm that the difference in the rate of girls and boys out of school has been closed at the global level. However, there are persistent gaps in both directions at the country level.

In some countries, there are large gender gaps at the primary level with many more primary-school-age girls not enrolled in school than boys, for example in Afghanistan, Niger, and the Central African Republic. There are a couple of countries, however, where the opposite is observed: more boys than girls are not attending primary school in Madagascar, Mauritania, and Zambia.

Often, lack of access to education is linked to conflict and violence. A large, and increasing, number of girls is denied access to education due to conflict and fragility. In 2022, 614 million women and girls lived in conflict-affected contexts, 50 percent higher than in 2017 (UN Women 2023). This can have devastating effects on educational outcomes: In fragile and conflict-affected countries, girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school than boys (UNICEF 2017).

Even when children make it to school and complete several years of formal education, there is no guarantee that they acquire skills and knowledge. There is ample evidence that the great schooling expansion has not resulted in commensurate gains in learning.

The ongoing learning crisis puts educational gains at risk for both boys and girls

Both girls and boys are facing a learning crisis. More than half of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school (World Bank 2021). This phenomenon has been coined Learning Poverty and measures the share of children who are not able to read proficiently at age 10. Learning outcomes present a paradox: while enrolling girls in school remains a challenge, once they are in school, they outperform boys. Globally, boys are 3.7 percentage points more learning-poor than girls.

This ongoing learning crisis pre-dates COVID-19 pandemic related setbacks in education and will require concerted efforts to ensure that every child is equipped with adequate numeracy and literacy skills. Globally, the full extent of COVID-19 related impacts on education outcomes will only become fully visible over the next couple of years and targeted efforts are needed to course-correct in cases where learning trajectories have been cut short (World Bank 2022).

Gender disparities in STEM tertiary education remain high

Women are significantly less likely to enroll in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, largely due to social and cultural perceptions about genders and subject study (Hammond et al 2020). Women enrolled in STEM courses are more likely to switch out of their fields, and the dropout rate in STEM-related tertiary education programs is higher for women than men (Delaney and Devereux 2021). As a result, female students represent far less than 50 percent of all students graduating with a degree in STEM-related fields of study in most countries. There is a risk that women will be locked out of the jobs of the future without ensuring they have access to STEM education (Brixi et al 2023).

Making good on a promise to all children

All children have a human right to quality education. Yet, despite progress, considerable disparities in education remain – some putting girls at a disadvantage, some at the expense of boys. While gender disparity at the global level has disappeared for enrollment rates at the primary and secondary level, more needs to be done to improve school completion among girls, and to improve learning outcomes among boys. There are also new gender gaps on the horizon related to digital literacy (UNESCO 2020). Expanding learning opportunities to marginalized children and equipping children with the skills for the future remains a priority for education systems worldwide.