Global Resources

Youth and skills: putting education to work: gender overview

Publisher: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Publication Date: Jan 2012

As more children around the world get the chance to enter secondary school, it is vital to ensure that girls and boys benefit equitably from this progress. At primary level, girls remain much more likely to be disadvantaged in many countries, so it is imperative to maintain the international focus on supporting girls. At secondary level, however, boys can also at a disadvantage in some countries. These disparities and limitations not only affect young people however; negative and positive impacts in education transfer into later life, impacting the nature of society as a whole and, in the end, affecting everyone. To better understand gender imbalances in enrolment, dropping-out, and in post-education contexts, household survey data from nine of the sixteen countries with the highest gender disparities were analysed for this UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2012. The resulting report represents an in-depth look at the gendered challenges and opportunities surrounding education around the world, including a number of case studies and suggested courses for action.

The report notes a number of successes with regard to recent trends in education, especially concerning girls. The number of girls outside of primary education halved between 1999 and 2010, and fell by a third for teenage girls outside of secondary school. Additionally, the number of countries with severe gender disparities in education dropped from 33 to 17. However, a number of negatives remain:

  • 68 countries had failed to reach gender parity in primary education by 2012, with girls disadvantaged in 60 of them. Countries with particularly extreme gender gaps include Pakistan and Afghanistan, where there are only seven girls for every ten boys in school.

  • 97 countries had failed to reach gender parity in secondary education, with 54 disadvantaging boys. In middle- and high-income countries, boys were more likely to be missing out on secondary education. Additionally, boys are under-performing in reading skills, and the gap is widening. Boys out-perform girls in mathematics, however, that gap is narrowing.

  • There are long-term effects of denying girls and young women access to education; two-thirds of illiterate adults are women.

  • Gender disparities in education are exacerbated by poverty; in poor countries, girls are less likely to have attended school compared to boys.

All of this gendered discrimination translates into discriminatory norms with regard to putting education to work. A history of educational neglect has left a skills deficit among young people now facing the world of work, with young women the worst affected of all; 116 million young women aged 15-24 in developing countries have never completed primary school and lack important skills for work. Discrimination faced by girls and young women at school is also reinforced in the workplace; young women are far more likely to be invisible in the labour market than men, often working long hours in household and informal labour out of sight to policy-makers. Additionally, even for those women who are in work, young women with equal or higher levels of education than young men are more likely to be paid lower wages. To remedy the long-term, post-school impacts of gender discrimination in education, the report makes the following recommendations:


  • Governments and policy makers must address the discrimination faced by girls and young women in both educational settings and the workplace.

  • Countries must tackle barriers that exclude girls and young women from progressing in education to at least lower secondary level, including gender-specific norms and practices and the gendered division of labour, via legislative change, strategies to change attitudes towards school reentry for pregnant women and mothers, scholarships and cash transfers, and greater distance- and open-education opportunities.

  • All young people should benefit from a minimum level of quality lower secondary school by 2030, with disadvantaged groups specifically targeted.

  • Young women who make it to the end of secondary school need help making the transition through to employment; equal opportunities for apprenticeships and career counselling must be made available at a larger scale.

  • The 116 million young women of working age globally who never completed primary school urgently need well-coordinated and adequately funded second chance programmes on a much greater scale than currently available.

  • As a proven effective strategy, young women should be provided with microfinance and livelihood assets, with stipends until assets start to yield income, together with opportunities to build the skills needed to make the most out of these assets.

  • All of these changes cannot be made without additional funds. There is an urgent need, especially in poor countries, for more resources to ensure all young people, regardless of their gender, have a good foundation in education.