Measuring Gender Equality in Education Globally

Across 43 countries, Population Council researchers studied progress in achieving gender equality in education, and identified opportunities for future investments. 

The Issue

During the past few decades, policy and programmatic investments have brought notable improvements in gender equality in education around the world. Recent studies have shown that, on average, gender parity has been achieved globally in primary and secondary school enrollment, and, in some regions, while girls may not be as likely as boys to enter school, they progress as far as boys once they enroll.

In the face of these important successes, one might reasonably ask why there should be continued investment in girls’ education. Available data indicate that observed progress may mask variations in school enrollment and grade attainment within countries and regions. Widely used measures of success may also conceal important challenges, such as that these measures do not capture how gender gaps may evolve or capture other areas of gender inequality, such as learning outcomes and post-schooling opportunities.

Key questions remain:

  • Are there remaining gender gaps in school enrollment?
  • How do patterns of school progression differ for girls and boys?
  • Is gender parity in attainment likely to translate into equal learning?
  • Does parity in attainment mean that gender equality in education has been achieved?

The Progress

Through the new Girl, Education, Research and Learning (GIRL) Center, the Population Council investigated progress in both improving primary school enrollment and attainment for girls and eliminating gender disparities.

Using Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data collected in 43 low-and middle-income countries at two time points across ten years, researchers examined progress in achieving gender equality in education on multiple fronts: increasing grade attainment, closing gender gaps in attainment, and increasing literacy levels.

Researchers reported five key findings:

  1. Progress in girls' education has stagnated in many countries.
  2. Despite gender parity in enrollment globally, in many countries female disadvantages persist.
  3. Once enrolled in school, girls tend to complete as many grades as boys.
  4. Gender parity in attainment may mask other important deficiencies in education.
  5. Gender parity in attainment does not necessarily translate into gender parity in learning.

The findings suggest that claims of global achievement of gender parity in primary education are premature, especially in the poorest countries. Even where parity in attainment has been achieved, attainment levels are still low for both girls and boys in many countries, and many young people complete primary school without gaining basic literacy skills. 

The Impact

This study, published in the peer-review journal Population and Development Review, highlights the importance of evidence-based decision-making and lays out a framework for measuring progress in achieving gender equality in education, both within and between countries, that can be used by policy-makers, program managers, and donors to accelerate efforts toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Echidna Giving, a key donor and thought leader in girls' education, supported this work as part of their strategic refresh process. The results have helped inform Echidna Giving's evaluation of strategic opportunities for investment in girls' education.

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