Measuring gender equality in education: A challenge for the Sustainable Development agenda

By Elaine Unterhalter, Professor of Education and International Development at the Institute of Education, University College London, and Joan Dejaeghere Associate Professor, Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development, Interdisciplinary Center for Global Change, University of Minnesota.


Young girls attend Adolescent Girls’ Club in South Sudan © BRAC/ShehzadNoorani

As we look to the post-2015 agenda, discussions are turning to how we can expand our thinking around girls’ and women’s education from just gender parity (comparing numbers of girls to boys in the classroom) to gender equality. The focus on parity since the EFA goals were set in 2000 is widely acknowledged to have left serious obstacles to girls’ and women’s educational opportunities, including gender insensitive curricula and learning materials, classroom practices that undermine gender equality, and school management ignoring or minimizing incidents of school related gender based violence (SRGBV).

It is important to move the discussion on from parity to equality. Hiding behind what may seem like parity, for example, may be vast differences in the quality of education girls and boys receive.

How can we measure gender equality?

There are two main challenges associated with measuring gender equality in education. The first is the imprecision associated with the current measurement system. Critics note that current metrics provide limited perspectives for policy discussion. The data routinely collected through administration channels or household surveys does not lend itself to explore more complex processes of inequality. The challenge of finding a way to define and measure SRGBV, which is one of the entrenched forms of gender inequality in education, is an important example.

Clarifying what gender equality or inequality in education is, so that it can be measured and resulting gaps exposed, entails understanding how gender intersects with other forms of social division (disability, class, race etc.) in different socio-cultural and historical contexts. It requires considering issues of social justice and wellbeing.

Questions arise about whether we can measure gender equality in terms of what certain groups do or do not possess, or can gain through education—for example, access to schooling, adequate resources (teachers, textbooks) or qualifications. But measuring who has what leads to the concern that gender equality would again be viewed in a parity perspective. Gender equality in education has a far broader meaning than this.

Stated differently, can we measure both distributional changes in education such as equal number of male and female teachers or gender representation in textbooks etc. and also capture the subjective concerns associated with gender? Some international assessments, such as PISA, measure aspects of students’ autonomy and civic mindedness, while the recent OECD study of gender and education looks at aptitude, behaviour and confidence. However, the questions being used do not capture gender-specific social norms, for example, which would provide far greater information about gender equality. In addition, such studies do not make clear why particular aspects, and not others, have been singled out to encapsulate gender equality in education.

Why should we measure gender equality?

Phot: JustinMott/UNESCO EFA Report

Phot: JustinMott/UNESCO EFA Report

The second main challenge around measuring gender equality is that there has been a failure to clarify why it is something worth measuring. Is it, for example, because we want education systems to be more efficient or is it due to concern for social justice and human rights? It is one step, after all, for critics of gender parity (and the simple measure of distribution) to say that it is not an adequate measure of gender equality in education. It is an altogether more difficult proposition to say what measuring gender equality in education should entail and how it should be accomplished.

Gender equality has a broad meaning

Given the history of women’s exclusion, subordination and injustice, noted in every country in the world, it is important that the voices and perspectives of women are considered in how gender equality in education is measured and for what purposes. The metric for gender equality must include the right of women to articulate, review and critically comment on justifications for social arrangements. The metric must also consider the political economy and socio-cultural norms and practices that maintain injustices towards certain groups and exacerbate gender inequalities. Measures must additionally evaluate processes for real change towards greater gender equality and social justice. And lastly, because of the significance of bodily and emotional vulnerability in many meanings of gender, measuring or evaluating gender equality in education must aim to promote progress towards reducing all forms of gender-based violence and ensuring women are empowered to exercise their rights to reproductive health and autonomy.

Towards a common definition of gender equality in education

A useful way to move beyond this impasse is to use list-based approaches to defining what gender equality in education is, while subjecting this process to rigorous scrutiny and debate. This approach has been successfully used by the UNDP and OECD to develop gender equality measures, although, as of yet, their measures in relation to education still only focus on gender parity and only at the national level. Thus a further challenge is to ensure relevant measures are developed at other levels—for example, the community, school, teacher and individual student levels–in order to assess and change discriminatory gender attitudes and behaviour.

We urgently need an informed political and technical discussion on how to develop a normative approach to defining gender equality in education. And on the basis of this discussion we will be able to work on developing improved and policy-relevant measures. Without this discussion, and consensus on the definition, whatever measurement we develop will attract the criticism that we have only reworked gender parity using imperfect proxies. It is important we get the parameters right early on in the post-2015 era. If we do not, we will find we have not reached the vision we are aiming for by 2030.

This entry was posted in Basic education, Equity, Gender, Millennium Development Goals, Post-2015 development framework and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Measuring gender equality in education: A challenge for the Sustainable Development agenda

  1. unearthedzim says:

    Reblogged this on unearthedzim and commented:
    measuring gender equality …


  2. Shihab says:

    At first thank you for your article.
    really it is a major problem of poor country. gender equality is a simple matter for Asia. maximum people don’t think about gender equality. thay don’t think without solve it the poor country can’t rich. We all should think about it.


  3. susanmicle says:

    Nice post


  4. e m m a says:

    Reblogged this on e m m a.


  5. Pingback: Measuring gender equality in education - Education Cluster

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