In the second of three blogs marking the launch of the new 2016 GEM Report Gender Review, we look at the relationship between education, leadership, gender equality, and participation in public and private spheres.
Until women and men have equal opportunity to participate in public and private life, as community members, citizens, decision makers and leaders, we will not be living in a sustainable, fair world for all.
We have considerable distance to travel: long-standing gender inequalities in public and private participation are endemic, with women facing deep-rooted discrimination, and men dominating leadership and decision-making positions the world over. Women are far less likely than men to hold senior management positions, seats on executive boards, or make decisions in major religions, social organizations or households. Worldwide, far less than one quarter of heads of state, heads of government and ministers are women. Looking across different government cabinets, it becomes clear that women are also far more likely to hold social policy portfolios such as education, gender and culture, rather than economic or defence portfolios.
Travelling this distance is worth it: gender equality is vital for achieving sustainable development and protecting the environment. For example, research suggests that women express more concern for the environment than men, and countries with more women in parliament are more likely to ratify environmental treaties. Women constitute almost two-thirds of the 758 million adults who are unable to read or write a sentence – a vast pool of people we are not empowering to help us fight environmental shifts. Education can equip individuals with skills and knowledge to understand environmental problems and help tackle them. Equal representation in leadership and community decision-making is more likely to build better resilience, improve risk management and advance environmental preservation.
Basic education can also help women access their social and legal rights, and enable them to participate in politics. When education provides women with literacy and numeracy skills, it helps them acquire critical knowledge for everyday life such as understanding political platforms and voting, which many of us take for granted.
What happens in classrooms is crucial for challenging gender gaps in leadership. Quality schooling can offer young people opportunities to learn about and practice leadership roles through school clubs and committees. Female role models can attract girls to school and improve their learning outcomes. Yet female teachers make up 94% of pre-primary teachers, 64% of primary school teachers and only 50% of upper secondary school teachers. Men are more likely to ascend to leadership positions in schools, even where the majority of teachers are women. Transformation of the education sector – including the structures and composition of school management, governance, and education ministries – is needed to create a gender equitable environment.
Female share of school management personnel, by level of education, selected countries, 2014
Source: UIS database.
The perpetuation of gender stereotypes contributes to children’s understandings of gender and their ideas of women and men’s capabilities. The fact that most teachers in pre-primary and primary schools are women often perpetuates stereotypes that caring for young children is women’s work. French pre-schools are called ‘Maternelles’ for instance, which leaves little to the imagination. Equally, having more male principals or administrators indicates that men are more likely to become managers than women. These have implications for children’s aspirations and expectations.
Higher education is important but does not guarantee equality in the public sphere. Further education and professional training are typically required for women to be considered credible, influential, high-level leaders and decision-makers. Yet some countries with historically high levels of girls’ and women’s education, such as the United Kingdom and United States, have fewer women in senior political posts than countries with fewer girls in school. With only the second ever female Prime Minister newly in post in the UK, and a hotly contested US election with Hilary Clinton in the running, perhaps the situation for these countries is changing.
However, having women in leadership and decision-making roles does not automatically translate to real authority, influence or systemic change. Both men and women leaders must challenge prejudice and unequal power structures. Men who are active supporters of gender equality are important role models, particularly for boys and other men.
Ensuring representative leadership, decision making and equitable participation in all areas of life is vital for sustainable development. All girls, boys, women and men must become change agents to ensure that a fairer and more sustainable world is achieved for generations to come.