Quality education needed to boost women’s economic empowerment

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Better educated women secure brighter futures for themselves and lift entire households out of poverty.

While Hillary Clinton is cracking the glass ceiling, if not yet shattering it entirely, in the United States by becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, recent analysis on U.S. women in the workforce presents a more sobering finding.

On one hand, women are making strides. They earn more degrees (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral) than men, make up nearly half of the labor force, and occupy more than half of management jobs. Yet they constitute only 9.5% of top earners and a mere 4.4% of CEOs in S&P 500 companies. As in many other countries, this means that smart, motivated, and hardworking American women are gazing up at coveted jobs wondering how to get there. Globally, women’s labor force participation has stagnated and indeed fallen from 57 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2013. Women remain half as likely as men to have full-time wage jobs. 
The pipeline to women’s economic empowerment starts by ensuring access to quality education for girls. Better educated women not only secure brighter futures for themselves, they can lift entire households out of poverty. A multitude of factors can prevent girls from accessing quality education.
The World Bank notes that multi-sectoral approaches are needed to overcome the challenges faced by girls when it comes to attending, staying and learning in school, including:

  • Providing conditional cash transfers, stipends or scholarships;
  • Reducing the distance to school;
  • Targeting boys and men to be a part of discussions about cultural and societal practices;
  • Ensuring gender-sensitive curricula and pedagogies;
  • Hiring and training qualified female teachers;
  • Building safe and inclusive learning environments for girls and young women;
  • Ending child/early marriage; and
  • Addressing violence against girls and women.
While securing the pipeline by ensuring ample learning opportunities for girls is important, it’s not enough. An OECD 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report highlights the successful attempts by many countries to close gender gaps in learning outcomes among 15 year-olds, with girls in fact outperforming their male counterparts on average. However, the report also notes that even high achieving girls may lack self-confidence and have markedly lower aspirations for their future.
Armenia reflects a typical pattern of how school access and academic achievement are not guaranteed pathways to women’s economic empowerment. According to an Asian Development Bank report, despite parity in enrollment and learning outcomes, young Armenian women tend to pursue “traditionally female” fields of study which lead to lower-paid public sector jobs while young men tend to concentrate in technical fields. As a result, Armenia has one of the largest gender wage gaps in Southeast Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. I plan to conduct more research to understand the factors behind the low post-secondary education and labor market participation of Armenian women, especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) fields.
Although such findings can be discouraging, key transformations  can make a difference.
First, we have better access to quality data and research. Thanks to initiatives such as Data2X, which aims to improve the quality, availability, and use of gender data, women’s journey through the pipeline from education to the workplace can be better traced. Mercer recently published a report based on analysis of a firm database including 42 countries, 650+ firms, and 1.3 million women, and reached the conclusion that “ When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive”.
Second, governments are increasingly using their buying power to support women and their businesses. Switzerland has a policy that for firms to take part in public procurement, they must show that they have fulfilled concrete steps towards achieving gender equality. The Dominican Republic created quotas for women and youth in public procurement to ensure more equal participation. Kenya also took similar steps, which resulted in more than doubling of number of firms submitting proposals, as well as of total amount of procurement.
Third, firms of all sizes are also taking important steps. Walmart recently started daycare centers in Japan, once it was clear that care facilities would enhance women’s labor market participation even more than training. SumUp Brazil is finding innovative ways to enhance access to finance for microenterprises, especially to support female entrepreneurs and businesses. And last year, the
Calvert Women’s Principles reached its tenth anniversary, which were designed to provide firms with measure goals for achieving gender equity in areas such as hiring, pay, and career development.
Gender equality in the workplace, as summed by former CEO Barbara Krumsiek, is “both the right thing and a good thing to do”. What are other ways that we can support women to break the glass ceiling?   Please share in the comment section below.
Read this World Bank report about empowering women and girls for shared prosperity.
Visit the World Bank’s website on  girls’ education .

Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on  Twitter  and  Flipboard.


Keiko Inoue

Practice Leader for Human Development, World Bank

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