Bridging the gender gap in higher educationJust improving literacy rates as a token of inclusion may not improve gender parity.
On the face of it, the number of female students in higher education seems to be in the majority, and they have overtaken their male counterparts in some courses such as education, management, medicine including nursing. But in reality, they are being even more systematically discriminated against, as males in the same category are being rewarded with more lucrative opportunities to study abroad that entails much higher costs and better returns. Therefore, girl students are 'cursed' to settle down with a lower quality domestic education system.
On the supply side, despite the platitude of women being natural educators, the number of women teachers is disproportionately low across all levels of education. Thus, the gender gap continues to persist today, owing to many and varied reasons. Among them, the issues of unequal access and exclusion structural barriers stand out glaringly. Right policy initiatives and planning interventions alone can facilitate and promote equal access to education for women.
Unequal access and exclusion
Despite an impressive growth in enrolment numbers, the systematic exclusion of girls, especially in the case of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses, remains one of the biggest problems in higher education. Higher female enrolment rates across a few disciplines should not be used to gloss over their overall exclusion. For instance, among the 963 students enrolled in PhD courses in 2017, only 144 were women. Female enrolment as ‘consumers’ might have increased, but the abysmally low number of female faculty members in university education suggests that women lag behind as ‘producers’ of knowledge.
What is worth noting is the increasing gross enrolment rates of girls at the primary level since 2017 which has been higher than that of men. While this is the case, 4,460,819 of the 6,275,174 illiterates are females, in the category of 15 years and older. The literacy rate among the same age group stands at 78.6 percent for men vis-à-vis 59.7 percent for women in the year 2018. This gap in the literacy rate should ring alarm bells to policymakers to delve deeper into the agenda of girl education. As per the statistics released by UNESCO for 2019, the gross intake ratio into the first and last grade of primary education is higher for girls. However, there is no data as to how many of them continue to reach the last grade of primary education. This suggests there is disregard for making data on women accessible which can be considered as an equity issue.
Girls, on a day-to-day basis, face a number of barriers to in the pursuit of education that are caused by poverty, cultural barriers, conservatism, poor infrastructure, violence and their inherent issues due to biological factors such as menstruation. Besides, attitudes appear to be playing a major part as parents do not want to send a girl child to school due to fear of harassment, security issues and the need to help with household chores. One thing that keeps girls away from school is abject poverty, which is, by and large, universal. Marriage is another challenge that prevents them from getting into the higher education threshold. UNICEF data shows that almost one-third of women aged 20-24 years in Nepal get married before the age of 18, which is comparable across the nations of South Asia. Covid-19 is likely to worsen the gains made in women education in Nepal as many females are not likely to return to school even after the crisis is over.
Gender-neutral and gender-specific issues pose a real challenge in bridging the gap. Some of the former challenges arise due to poverty, parents' ignorance or the distance involved in commuting to college, or the sheer absence of proper and adequate transportation facilities. But gender-specific issues are related to perceptions that there are no real payoffs from making daughters highly educated; many families believe that daughters need to be married off eventually. For example, if they need to buy a smartphone for educational purposes, the son must get it first but not the daughter as the parents have to save the money for her marriage.
Interventions and way forward
Conducting research to find out the reasons for girl students opting for certain courses and distancing themselves from others might help to reduce the gender gap in STEM courses and also the subsequent lag in workforce participation. In India, due to the pragmatic measures taken by the government, perceptible changes are being observed in terms of higher enrolment in technical courses and doctorate programmes. Extending the maternity and child care leave to 240 days for pregnant women while pursuing their MPhil and PhD programmes is a case in point.
The establishment of colleges exclusively for women might encourage rural girls and embolden their parents to send them for education away from home. This requires government intervention by making girls’ education a strategic development priority. While Sustainable Development Goal 4, Education, aims to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all, this would have no real effect unless the government comes up with policy initiatives, especially those focused on women. To effectively foster girls’ education, budgetary allocations need to be made available for sanitary pads, women’s hostels and so forth.
It is accepted that mothers continue to be the first schools, probably long before the babies are born. While this is the case, the gender gap continues to imperil education across all levels. The gender gap in education is not just the problem of a society, community, or one single nation, but the problem of humanity. This is so as more than half of the population living in any geographical area is forced to take sub-optimal or shoddy treatment from the government, societies and families too. Today, there is a shortfall in women being able to experience meaningful educational outcomes and enjoy gainful employment. Bridging the gender gap in education is the only way to build a more inclusive and just society. However, just improving literacy rates as a token of inclusion may not improve gender parity on a sustainable basis. We are already running late and appear to have missed the bus.