Published on Let's Talk Development

Getting women to the top of the career ladder through education

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In the face of significant social and cultural barriers, it is tempting to be cynical about a role for education in promoting women managers in developing economies. Consider the number of factors that could come in the way: nationally, cultural and social attitudes may discourage the career advancement of women, and at the firm-level, male-dominated informal networks and cultures can act as barriers. Furthermore, even if all these obstacles were somehow removed, the lack of good quality education itself, and skills mismatches can pose problems.
But, in spite of all this, education remains a crucial founding block for career success. After all, one needs an education in the first place to get to a point where these other factors can undercut the likelihood of career progression. Therefore, without access to education, one may stumble even before the climb up the career ladder begins.

In our recent study (forthcoming, Feminist Economics) my co-author and I explore whether access to education is correlated with the likelihood of becoming a female boss in the formal private sector of developing countries. We use Enterprise Surveys data for information on the gender of the top managers of the private firms. The advantage of looking at top managers is that it presents a type of employment that is likely to raise the welfare of women and their influence in society, and is not susceptible to data quality issues like wage data.
For our study we use Enterprise Surveys data on the gender of the top managers in 16,000 manufacturing firms spread across 73 developing countries. We define access to education as the ratio of male-female enrollment in primary, secondary and tertiary education. Firm-level factors include, economic sector, age of firm, availability of formal training, exporting status, and the quality of the business environment. At the country-level, we control for the level of development, the proportion of women in parliament, the legal system, rule of law, and religion.
What do we find?  
As one would expect, an increase in access to education for women has a positive and highly significant relationship with the likelihood of having women top managers. More importantly, our analysis finds that a 1-unit increase in the ratio of male-female enrollment in primary, secondary, and tertiary education is associated with a 7.8 percent increase in women managers.

Based on this result, our most conservative estimate shows that when a country climbs up from having the lowest ratio of women’s education enrollment (in our sample, this is Chad) to the highest (Dominica), the likelihood of a woman becoming a top manager at a firm can increase by 16 percentage points. This is a large increase given that only 19.5 percent of the firms in our sample have a woman top manager. Furthermore, when singling out the education level, tertiary female education enrollment is the most important determinant of female manager presence. Finally, our findings are much stronger for small firms than large firms, potentially indicating an additional benefit of policies targeting small firms.

While data limitations do not allow us to fully address the causality issue, we hope that the study is a step in the right direction and it encourages more endeavors into the subject matter.


Asif Islam

Senior Economist, Office of the Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa Region, The World Bank

Mohammad Amin

Private Sector Development Specialist

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