Using Both Hands Global Gender Differences in Education

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It has, thankfully, been a growing trend in recent years to address the differences of gender in education around the world. The 1990 World Conference on Education for All made it quite clear that ‘education for all’ means including both boys and girls equally in the education process, and to treat both sexes equally throughout this process. This, the Conference concluded, is a matter of both justice and equality. This World Conference “marked the beginning of intensified international support for assuring access to quality education for girls” and was reaffirmed a decade later by both the World Education Forum and the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000. That this issue has been taken up on the global level means only good developments for anyone involved in the process. How the issue has been addressed is the focus of this paper – what it means for education is the central question of the entire discussion.

Why does this paper choose to address global gender differences in education? First of all, there are very few global development issues more important than education. Other issues may be more immediately pressing – access to clean water, to breathable air, to disposable income of course take precedence in the short run. These needs must be addressed if any progress whatsoever is going to be attained. However, with a long view of global development, education means the continuation of these needs being met. Education gives people the means to enact change in their own cultures, societies, towns, villages, and nations. Education has long been seen as a harbinger of social progress, the pursuit of which is often seen to ensure a brighter future. Since the ideological shifts of the Enlightenment, public education has taken center stage in public debate. Now, it must take center stage in the disciplines and professions associated with global investment and international development.

By making sure that global practices in education are up to par, citizens, policymakers, administrators and teachers are all ensuring that global development is sustainable. There are many issues involved with creating and maintaining quality educational practices – costs, cultures, accessibility, and economic realities are all very relevant and must be addressed. All of these are continually addressed by global institutions, governments and NGOs – as the UNESCO’s ‘Atlas of Gender Education’ (2012) states, “The global community has long been interested in finding ways to improve access to high quality education at all levels, from pre-primary through tertiary. Education is a fundamental human right…that also brings important benefits to human society as a whole” (p. 8). Many of those seeking to solve issues surrounding education use this as a guiding light – and this paper will do the same by addressing one aspect of education that creates a significant difference in education for much of the population – that is, the ever-present gender gap in education. This is the specific focus of this paper, as it addresses the goals, successes, and failures of education practices around the world in terms of gender. Before providing the paper’s thesis and a brief outline, it looks to the reason for this topic.

Why is this topic so important for a discussion of global education practices and policies? There is no question that girls and boys, men and women, have very different and widely disparate experiences in education. This is an important topic to discuss because gender differences in education are, ostensibly, a type of sex discrimination in the overarching education system. This type of discrimination can affect not only boys and girls during their educational experiences, but the men and women that they turn into years after they leave primary, secondary, or higher education schooling. The statistics also reflect the importance of this topic. Across the globe, men have much higher literacy rates, with a ratio of 100/88 – or, for every 100 men that are literate, there are only 88 women counterparts. This is, of course, a mean average and in some countries, such as Bangladesh, the ratio gap is even higher (100/62), or 62 literate women for every 100 literate men (BBC, 2005, n.p.). This highlights the difference between developed and underdeveloped countries, and is further marked by the recent reversed gender gap in higher education in the United States. As of 2005 averages, there was a ratio of 43 males to 57 females in university participants (Marklein, 2005, n.p.). This is not a paper to argue that women are being unfairly subjugated in terms of education – although there may be a time and place for that elsewhere. Instead, this paper acknowledges that there are differences in education practice and policy-making with regards to gender, and seeks to address this issue along several different fronts.

This paper addresses the question of how these gender differences affect boys and girls in the classroom specifically and in their educational experience more broadly. Because the author has little access to quantitative analysis tools, the paper will largely be a framing of existing literature. The paper discusses four sub-topics relevant to the discussion of global gender differences in education. First, it establishes that there is, in fact, a global difference in education based on gender. This situates the problem in terms of the ‘reality on the ground’, so to speak. Second, the paper looks to the running debate surrounding single-sex education versus mixed-gender educational institutions. This is perhaps one of the most important specific debates regarding gender difference in education. Third, the paper addresses the role of the teacher in creating and sustaining fair and efficient practices in terms of gender difference in the classroom. Finally, the paper makes a conclusion about the current state of gender differences in global education practices and policies based on the analysis of these three parts. Ultimately, the paper argues that gender difference is something that should be accounted for when creating and sustaining educational policies and practices. What this account would look like depends upon subsequent research – however, it is clear that gender (for better or for worse) plays a role in educational success or failure, and education policy-makers, administrators, and teachers ought to take this into consideration if a quality global standard of education is to be sustained.

The Global Difference

As the statistics mentioned above show, there are clear differences in gender representation and gender practice in education around the globe. It cannot be said that there is a global trend – the gender gap reverses depending on whether one is talking about primary education, higher education, literacy rates, and developed or underdeveloped countries. However, it is clear that differences based on gender are present around the world. The Woman Stats Project (2014), which bills itself as “the most comprehensive compilation of information on the status of women in the world” presents the status of gender difference around the world in a map, shown below (n.p.). This map outlines the wide range of effect that gender has on individual countries by showing the discrepancy in secondary education across nations. It is clear that nearly all developed countries have less than a 5% difference between male and female participation in secondary education, and no legal or cultural educational restrictions for females. In contrast, nearly all developing or underdeveloped countries have more than a 16% discrepancy between male and female participation in secondary education, in addition to having significant legal or cultural restrictions on education for women, with some of these restrictions being enforced. While this map may not be able to tell the entire story, it nevertheless leaves critical thinkers with a clear picture to consider when talking about gender discrepancy in education around the world. In addition to this map overview, UNESCO’s ‘World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education’, mentioned above, also gives readers a relatively clear picture of the state of gender differences around the world by breaking the issue down into differentiated areas and indicators.

The report begins by acknowledging, “girls and women remain deprived of full and equal opportunities for education” (UNESCO, 2012, p. 11). There has, ostensibly, been significant progress toward gender equality at the level of primary education, but this progress becomes less impactful at the secondary level and in developing. UNESCO’s (2012) report places this problem in the context of the larger world system, saying “the global economic crisis is deepening inequalities, made worse by cuts in education budgets and stagnating development support” (p. 23). In other words, countries that are the worst-off to begin with have hard time improving their situation through education because they simply do not have the resources available to enact a lasting or significant change in policy or practice. After this initial summary of the state of affairs, the report then turns to the specifics of the global gender difference in education.

First, the report says that the success or failure of gender parity in education has much to do with the traditions and history of the society that it is situated in. In the words of the UNESCO report (2012), “all societies have given preference to males over females when it comes to educational opportunity, and disparities in educational attainment and literacy rates today reflect patterns which have been shaped by the social and education policies and practices of the past” (p. 7). The result is that nearly every single country in the world faces some kind of gender disparity. In other words, gender parity is an issue that needs to be addressed in all countries. This, it is important to note, includes situations in which males are at a disadvantage to females. This is an aspect of the issue that is not often discussed, and will be addressed more fully in subsequent sections. Of course, the more general pattern is that females are at an educational disadvantage to males. With that said, the report shows that, in general, female enrollment in education is rising at a greater than among males, which holds some promise for the future.

This reflects an important trend shown in this ‘World Atlas’ report – that girls truly are gaining ground. UNESCO’s (2012) summary regarding this trend describes it clearly, and is worth quoting at length:

While educational opportunity expanded over the last four decades for both sexes, the gains were particularly striking among girls in terms of access, retention and progression from primary to secondary and beyond. An important theme is that although girls are still disadvantaged in terms of access to education in many countries and regions, they tend to persist and perform at higher rates than boys once they do make it into the education system (p. 38).

In other words, the conscious efforts made toward education for females in the past few decades have begun to both take root and take effect. This analysis certainly holds some bright rays of hope for the future of gender parity in education on a global level. This is reflected especially at the primary level, but holds promise in secondary and higher education as well. The UNESCO report presents statistics on this point in particular, and they are briefly discussed below.

Very clearly, gender parity is the strongest in the area of pre-primary and primary education. Males and females complete pre-primary education at similar (if not the same) rates in 62 percent of countries, a majority by a long shot (UNESCO, 2012, p. 52). The remaining percentage shows an equality of a different sort – males have higher rates of participation in 18 percent of countries, while females are favored in 20 percent of countries. The numbers become less encouraging when considering secondary education. The UNESCO report identifies various reasons for the increased disparity at this level of schooling, including emotional and physical dangers, traditional conceptions of gender roles, and the social demands to conform to these mores. In contrast, at the higher level of education, “women have been the principal beneficiaries in all regions” (UNESCO, 2012, p. 93). This, among other things, has come from international pressure to close (or, at least narrow) the gender gap in education. All in all, this analysis shows that there truly are differences in education, based solely on gender. This is true across the globe, from developed countries to underdeveloped and developing countries. The issues associated with these differences are analyzed next, with an emphasis on single-sex versus mixed schools and the role of the teacher.

Single-Sex vs. Mixed Schools?

The debate surrounding single-sex versus mixed gender (co-educational) schools has been one of the hottest issues on the table of global education in recent years. Many countries, states, cities, and school districts have yet to adopt official policies regarding the different schools, so the debate rages on. This leaves two clear camps on either side, with many in the middle, unsure of which route to take. While the arguments for single-sex schooling that are based on inherent differences in learning styles between girls and boys may not be empirically grounded, the debate does have some rich literature on both sides. Just one example of this is Jackson and Ivinson’s (2013) recent article that more or less summarizes the issues involved in the debate. These issues include the social-cultural context, academic attainment, and social concerns (Jackson & Ivinson, 2013, n.p.). Each of these issues is, at its core, about gender differences.

The debate surrounding the social-cultural context of single-sex and co-educational schooling has to do with the juxtaposition of an emerging pattern with the development of society. In the authors’ words, “There is an emerging pattern in research findings to suggest that when the culture within a school matches that of the families who send their children to the school, the higher the academic success” (Jackson & Ivinson, 2013, n.p.). In a globalized world, this means that, according to the research, same-sex education systems may be better for education in developing or underdeveloped countries, where the cultural context all but demands it. By “fitting in”, the school could lead to higher academic success. In contrast with this is the idealistic view that, for years, “schools have been viewed as important sites for social change and places to foster the development of more equal societies with less oppressive conditions for women” (Jackson & Ivinson, 2013, n.p.). If a school is to hold to these ideals, a co-educational approach would be desired. The juxtaposition of these two approaches will continue to be debated. A second issue brought up by Jackson & Ivinson is that of the measurement academic attainment. They point out that it is hard to measure the effect of gender, specifically, on single-sex education versus co-educational institutions. To measure how important gender is for academic attaining, “it is crucial to compare like with like” (Jackson & Ivinson, 2013, n.p.). In other words, researches would need to only compare schools that are exactly the same in all regards, except for their gender in-take. As the authors point out, this is next to impossible to achieve in practical research. Finally, there is a certain amount of social concern for proponents of co-educational schools, who argue that “mixed schools are essential so that girls and boys can learn to live and work together” (Jackson & Ivinson, 2013, n.p.). Simply put, if society as a whole is mixed, schools also should be mixed. All three of these concerns require further research if they are to be taken seriously.

In contrast to these important, albeit largely sociological, concerns stands a swath of academics and professionals who point to evidence that single-sex educational actually increases school performance and academic success. Diane Leonard (2006) makes this case the clearest in her wide-ranging review – she observes “that studies tend to demonstrate that single-sex education has a positive overall effect on girls’ attainment in examinations” (p. 190). This difference is, admittedly, relatively small, but the research nevertheless shows that girls in single-sex schools hold an advantage over their counterparts, especially in terms of the STEM field subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math – two areas that are usually dominated by males. Leonard (2006) uses this basis to argue that girls in these single-sex schools “are thus making less constrained choices based on genuine interest and ability, rather than on a priori gender stereotypes” (p. 206). Put another way, it is co-educational schools that appear to differentiate more strongly between sexes, rather than the other way around. The implication here is that by acknowledging that boys and girls learn differently (especially in regard to math and science), policy-makers, administrators and teachers can affect positive change for girls in the long run.

The Role of the Teacher

The positive changes needed for a decrease in gender disparity in education cannot be delegated entirely to academics and policy-makers. Teachers have accountability in ensuring that gender is not as contentious of an issue in the future. As Connell (2009) says, “we do not need a picture of ‘the good teacher’ in the singular, but pictures of good teachers in the plural, and good teaching in the collective sense” and concludes that “we need models of teacher education that will support creative, diverse and just teaching practices in an educational future that we can expect to look different from the educational past” (p. 214). In other words, a teacher’s role in the education of youth is constantly changing and must be adjusted accordingly if it is to reach the ideal of creating an equal, diverse and just educational environment. This is true in many senses, but can be particularly applied to the need for good teachers that know how to recognize and account for gender, without being completely gender biased. This can be a difficult task to accomplish. It has, and will continue to, require a conscious effort by teachers as a collective profession.

While it may be difficult and take conscious effort, there are many ways that this can be accomplished. Donna Taylor (2004), in her work about reconsidering the gender gap for boys, suggests several possible solutions and the implementation for these solutions. These are everyday practices, rather than an overarching pedagogy, and thus may be easier to implement classroom by classroom. The list is not completely exhaustive, but gives some valuable insight, and is reproduced here:

Recognizing and using the visual-spatial strengths of boys (i.e. with film and comics)

Utilizing hands-on materials (i.e. websites and handouts)

Incorporating technology (i.e. computer learning games)

Allowing time for movement and physical activity

Allowing healthy competition (i.e. games like a spelling bees, or Jeopardy)

Choosing books that appeal to boys

Providing or offering male role models

Boys-only reading programs (Taylor, 2004, p. 297)

These practical, in-classroom changes could make a world of difference for both males and females, boys and girls from pre-primary through higher education schooling. When single-sex schools or classrooms are not possible, it often falls to the teacher to responsibly account for the gender differences in his or her classroom. This involves, as Taylor (2004) goes on to state, “hands-on, interactive and problem-solving learning, and a supportive classroom environment, sensitive to the individual learning pace…and providing a sense of competence” (p. 298). These are just some of the practices that a teacher could engage his or her students with, regardless of what the international policy says or what the local practice is. This, ostensibly, is where practical differences in accounting for gender in education on a global scale should originate from anyway.

Conclusion: Impact on Policies and Research

This paper has, so far, examined gender and education for the perspective of global differences in policy and practice, the debate of single-sex versus co-educational schools, and the role of the teacher in encouraging the best education possible in his or her classroom. While the only overarching theme here has been that gender does, indeed, make a difference, there are several truths that have emerged through the examination of these issues, debates, and research points. The first is espoused by Lise Eliot (2009), in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, which addresses how small differences in gender grow into ‘troublesome gaps’. While Eliot’s evisceration of sex-differences is not as relevant to this paper in particular, her auxiliary argument does. That is that the belief in sex-different holds very real-world consequences (Eliot, 2009, p. 5). Regardless of the science behind sex-difference, it is society’s treatment of these perceived differences that will make all the difference. When Eliot (2009) argues that “Kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them”, proponents of both single-sex and co-educational schools should take note, and teachers ought to apply the words seriously to their practices. The first major truth unearthed in this paper, then, is that gender does matter, and should be considered carefully.

The second major truth is espoused by Raftery and Valiulis (2008), who write under the recognition that education has, in the past, been compromised by gender bias. Despite this compromise, the authors hold that education holds great promise for the development of society, saying that education “engages with issues of gender equality and inequality in society. Education reflects, implements, often challenges and sometimes destabilizes values in society. It can have extraordinary power, and this power can be harnessed to help bring about gender equality” (Raftery & Valiulis, 2008, p. 303). This is the second major truth about gender differences in education – as they begin to be solved, society as a whole will benefit from the change and development. Change often comes from below, and the fast-closing gender gap in education holds promise for positive change in the future.

IN UNESCO’s report, the authors relate a touching anecdote of Neth Din, a 77-year old farmer form Kandal Province in Cambodia. When he was asked why he and his wife placed so much value on educating their three granddaughters, he said, “We have two hands, and if one hand is weak we can do nothing. The two hands must be strong. We must use both hands” (UNESCO, 2012, p. 5). The ultimate argument of this paper is that gender does play a role in educational success or failure, and that global, national, and local policies ought to reflect this truth. Gender difference and the gender gap should be accounted for when creating and sustaining educational policies and practices. What exactly this should look like is not a question that can be answered here – it will require subsequent research. However, the fact remains that the gender gap should be addressed head-on – at least, if both hands are to be used.


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Eliot, L. (2009). Pink brain, blue brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps - and what we can do about it. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Leonard, D. (2006). Single-sex schooling. The Sage Handbook on Gender and Education. London: Sage, 190-204.

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Taylor, D.L. (2004). Not just boring stories: Reconsidering the gender gap for boys. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48 (4), 290-298.

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