“The Economist” Discovers Gender Inequality in Education

Please excuse the cheeky title. While it does represent my first reaction to these two articles from The Economist this week, it’s an unfair representation. Being somewhat more level-headed about it, I can view both articles as sort of primers for gender inequality in education. They’re targeting people who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs; they’re very “share-able” on Facebook and Twitter; and they’re great for increasing public awareness.

But let’s go over them a little more critically anyway.

In the first, “Making room for girls,” the author discusses in broad strokes the push toward universal enrollment in primary education and closing the gender gap, driven by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. They cite the reasoning behind this push as driven by a waste of human capital: failing to educate girls limits economic growth. Definitely true, but not nearly the only reason the global community is working to get every girl and boy in primary school. Don’t forget about the agreed basic human right to education, among many other reasons.

The article makes a great point that while the primary enrollment rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has gone up significantly (though not enough to meet the relevant MDG), enrollment in secondary and tertiary education has actually fallen. Some country-specific data are also highlighted, making the point that averages hide some pretty significant differences. I’ve embedded their graph on progress toward universal education here:

The issue that the article completely skips is the issue of quality. Even if every single primary school-age child is enrolled, what does that say about the quality of the education they’re receiving? If there are 100 children in a classroom with a single teacher, or that teacher changes every other year because the pay is so low, or the curriculum they’re using is out of date, or there are inadequate study materials, how much does universal enrollment really matter?

And what does universal enrollment say about the gender equality in the classroom? Do the girls have positive role models, examples of women doctors, politicians, and businesses owners to spark their imaginations? Do they have female teachers? Do their teachers, administrators, and fellow classmates treat the girls the same as the boys? There are 1000 questions to ask about gender equality in the classroom that go beyond how many students of each gender are there.

I understand the argument that quality might come at a second stage, that once we get everyone in the classroom, we can focus on how well they’re being educated. But that is unfair to the millions of children being poorly educated right now. They might be happy that their younger siblings or even their children will be better educated. But I bet they’d also feel cheated out of a quality education because their school, community, country, and the rest of the world came together and decided that it mattered more that they were sitting at the desk than what happened on the blackboard.

Maybe I’m hard on The Economist because I think of them as above the rest – somehow superior to the usual rabble on the internet and other media. I want them to be complex, to show at least glimpses into the many sides of the story. While the first article doesn’t live up to my expectations, the second one is an improvement. It doesn’t go in too deep, but provides a look into a key difference between girls’ and boys’ education. (It might be worth noting that the first is available only on the internet, while the second was written for the print edition.)

When education dries up” redeems The Economist for me (and I know their editors are breathing easy now that they’ve regained my approval). It focuses on a lot of the same issues as the first, but raises an important note: poverty impacts girls’ and boys’ education differently. In droughts in Uganda, the article notes, girls were pulled out of school at a higher rate than boys to support the family income. The boys were kept in school because their long-term job prospects were better, and that means higher income in the future.

This ties girls’ education to not only issues of poverty, but the job market, food security, and host of others. So the second article takes a deeper look, makes the reader think, and hopefully (from my perspective) inspires a few readers to go deeper into some of the challenges facing girls’ education, all without being too technical, too boring, or too long. I guess The Economist knows what it’s doing after all.


R., C. (2013, November 5). Gender inequality: Making room for girls. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2013/11/gender-inequality

The economics of sexual inequality: When education dries up. (2013, November 2). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21588927-new-research-hints-better-method-ensure-girls-africa-stay-school-when

Beyond Access to Education

Despite recent gains in girls’ enrollment in Afghan schools, much needs to done to ensure that girls not only have access to education, but more importantly, access to a quality education.

In the article, “Despite gains, future of Afghan girls’ education remains uncertain,” UNICEF highlights the success of the Zarghona Girls School in Kabul. During Taliban rule, school founder Shaima Alkozai secretly taught girls in her home. Following the fall of the regime, she founded the school to provide females with an education. Currently, her school serves 8,000 female students ranging from first to twelfth grade. Many of the girls show high levels of commitment, enthusiasm and dedication to their schooling, but their experience in not the norm in Afghanistan. While Alkozai’s school is a picture of success in Afghanistan, UNICEF reports that many girls in Afghanistan lack access to an education, especially girls from marginalized populations, such as the homeless or disabled. While there is much to learn from successful programs like the Zarghona Girls School, we must continue to push policy makers to ensure that quality is an aspect of all schools, rather than a select few.

Similarly, NPR published a piece, “Are Afghanistan’s schools doing as well as touted?” to critically examine education across the country. The story highlights the challenges facing education in Afghanistan, specifically challenges facing Afghan girls. Cultural barriers, such as early marriages, continue to prevent girls from attending school, but even for girls who are enrolled, there are severe limitations to the quality of their education. Many schools lack female teachers as well as trained and qualified teachers, making it impossible for older girls in all-female classes to learn. Schools lack permanent structures and resources and some schools continue to face security threats and challenges. In order for the Afghan education system to have lasting effects, the system must ensure both access and quality for all students.

The push in the past decade to meet the MDGs and the Education For All targets have placed emphasis on school enrollment, and specifically increasing enrollment for girls. While getting girls to attend school is the first step, it is imperative that we shift the focus towards ensuring quality. Often times, schools are viewed like a black box, with little regard for what takes place in schools. Policy makers operate with the mindset that as long as students attend schools, individuals and society will reap the benefits of education. This mind-set is unacceptable because it essentially gambles educational outcomes and children’s futures.

In order to ensure that Education For All does not simply mean universal enrollment, we must make sure that students have access to high quality programs. Curriculum must reflect the local cultural context, schools must prepare students for future success in their communities and education must be equitable for all children. As the articles suggest, the work towards improving Afghan girl’s education is far from complete. Simply attending school is not sufficient. Until all girls, in both rural and urban areas, have access to high quality, equitable and fair educational opportunities, we must continue to examine, evaluate and improve on what is taking place in classrooms.


NPR. (2013, October 24). Are Afghanistan’s schools doing as well touted? Retrieved October 27, 2013 from http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2013/10/24/240482395/are-afghanistans-schools-doing-as-well-as-touted.

UNICEF. (2013, October 28). Despite gains, future of Afghan girls’ education remains uncertain. Retrieved October 28, 2013 from http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/afghanistan_70759.html.