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An exception to the gender gap in education: the Middle East & North Africa?

Simon Thacker's picture
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This blog has been co-authored by Mourad Ezzine and Simon Thacker.

For a region not known for its equitable attitudes towards women, the Middle East offers up some surprising results for girls in school, results that are better in some ways than the rest of the world. For the moment, however, this academic achievement is not necessarily translating into progress for women in higher education or the labor market.

In a recent NBER working paper, "An Empirical Analysis of the Gender Gap in Mathematics," authors Fryer and Levitt find evidence for a gender gap in elementary school level mathematics in the United States, a gender gap that they find, extending their analysis to international results, in elementary- and secondary-level students around the world – except the Middle East. “Surprisingly, although these Middle Eastern countries have a high degree of gender inequality, there is no gender gap in mathematics on average in these places,”concluded the authors.  In fact, there is a reverse gender gap where girls outperform boys in grade 4 results, a trend that continues into grade 8, though, to be fair, with some exceptions.

Based on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), the study finds that on entering kindergarten, US girls and boys are observationally equivalent in both math and reading. By the end of fifth grade, however, girls have fallen more than 0.2 standard deviations behind their male counterparts in math, a gap that is equivalent to roughly 2.5 months of schooling.

When Fryer and Levitt turn their attention to international results, probing data from PISA and TIMSS exams, 2 comparable international benchmarking studies for grade 8 and grade 4 students, respectively, what they find there confirms what they see in the US. The Middle East, however, is an exception: grade 4 girls outperform boys on the TIMSS mathematics assessment, in all but one of the participating countries, while in grade 8 girls continue to outperform boys on TIMSS, though there are now more exceptions.   

One hypothesis put forward to explain this involves same-sex classrooms. In Middle Eastern countries such as Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Saudi Arabia, where virtually all secondary schooling is gender-segregated, girls outperform boys, while in countries with mixed classrooms, such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon, it is the boys who outperform girls in grade 8 testing. This leads the authors to contend that “mixed gender classrooms are a necessary component for gender inequality to translate into poor female math performance.” (Fryer and Levitt, 2009, p.21). In this connection, it would have been interesting to know whether mathematics scores taken from the ECLS-K data set for girls and boys taught in same-sex classrooms in the US would have corroborated this hypothesis or not, but this was not the authors’ primary research question.

However, not all primary schooling in the Arab world is segregated. In primary schools classes are rarely segregated and when students are tested with the grade 4 TIMSS math exam, the reverse gender gap is already apparent. For example, in Tunisia where classes are not segregated, these results clearly demonstrate statistically significant differences favoring girls who score 337, on average 18 points better than boys at 319.

Later in grade 8 TIMSS testing, the trend that begins to suggest itself is that more secular countries of the region, with mixed classrooms, see a reversal of grade 4 trends, i.e. boys outperforming girls – like the rest of the world – while in more conservative countries with same-sex classrooms, girls continue to outperform boys.  And yet there are exceptions to this secular/conservative division too: girls still outperform boys in Jordan, for instance.

A perfectly satisfying explanation for all these differing results remains elusive -- perhaps results from TIMSS 2011 will help identify the root causes of this gender gap. Clearly much more research is needed. In the meantime, girls are now doing better than boys in most subjects in the region, with the result that many more of them are going on to tertiary education. According to UNESCO figures, the gross enrollment rate for women in tertiary education is increasing rapidly, and in 15 out of 22 Arab countries, the women’s rate is now equal to or exceeds the men’s rate. This is leading to its own set of complications. In the fields of mathematics and science, there are some glaring imbalances.

In Kuwait, women who want to study in certain traditionally male fields, such as engineering, must achieve a higher grade point average for admission than men. In Oman, women students often must postpone university study for one year, a limitation not applied to men. (Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Freedom House)

Women’s participation in the labor market is low by world standards but is slowly increasing. According to the ILO, it was 22.6 % in 2000 rising to 24.8% in 2009 (compared to 52.1% and 52.7% in the world for these same years). As women's educational attainment has increased, more women have tried to move towards the job market. But there, employment prospects are dim. World Bank figures for unemployment suggest that educated women have the highest rates of unemployment in the region. For instance, 29.1% of female university graduates in Egypt are unemployed, almost three times higher than their male counterparts.

Some have suggested that one cause of the Arab Spring uprisings was that the educated populace in Tunisia and Egypt were held down too long. As women in the region progress educationally, one wonders how long they might be held back too.

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