March 8th was International Women’s Day. In recognition of the important role women can and do play in every aspect of daily life, this past week President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama launched a new initiative to expand access to education for young women worldwide, called “Let Girls Learn.”
The statistics that drive the program are worth repeating: currently, 62 million girls around the world who should be in school are not, while numerous others are fighting to stay there. In some cases, they are risking their lives to do so.
The long-term impact of gender inequality in education is profound: women and girls represent 70% of the 1 billion people living in extreme poverty on the planet.
Improving the opportunity to learn for all girls around the world is not just morally the right thing to do. Numerous studies show that it makes a huge difference to the health and economic wellbeing of entire families, communities and countries. Educating girls increases their lifetime earning opportunity, leads to smaller, healthier, and better-educated families, and stimulates economic growth.
In fact, according to a report on gender equality in education, employment and entrepreneurship from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “Increased education accounts for about half of economic growth in [the 34] OECD countries in the past 50 years, and that has a lot to do with bringing more girls to higher levels of education and achieving greater equality in the number of years spent in education between men and women.”
Gender inequality is everywhere
As the world tackles the problem of gender inequality in education, context is essential. In particular, while gender inequality exists everywhere, it presents itself in radically different ways depending on where a girl lives.
In developing countries, girls have more household and family responsibilities than boys and many are expected to marry young and leave the family. In these situations, sending boys to school might seem like a better investment in the future. In societies, where customs dictate separation of the sexes or norms are determined by fundamentalist religious beliefs, an educated female population is considered a threat to social stability.
Here in America, gender inequality in education plays out in ways that are less obvious. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, girls are 46% of the students enrolled in prekindergarten, 49% of students in elementary and secondary schools, and 57% of students in postsecondary education.
Even though women are a significant majority of students in colleges and universities in the United States, they remain dramatically underrepresented in certain fields such as science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees and 63% of master’s degrees, but just 31% of degrees in STEM fields, including just 19.3% of engineering degrees.
Regardless of the specifics of the inequality, the collective advantage of ensuring that women and girls have educational opportunities is enormous. In addition to improving families and communities, the world needs women to be educated and trained, and to join with men to solve a seemingly endless list of complex challenges that characterize our times – lack of clean drinking water, food insecurity, poverty, terrorism and climate change, to name just a few.
Bottom line, if we are going to make the world a sustainable place for all life, we need to fully develop the minds, capabilities and skills of the entire human race.
Simply put, we need to let girls learn.