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The opportunity to build back better from COVID-19: Fostering gender parity in education and skills development for a larger workforce

2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to stark relief the importance of equitable education and training. While many countries have made significant progress in improving human capital over the past several years, the pandemic threatens hard-won gains, especially in narrowing gaps between girls and boys. Around the world, the transition to remote learning due to COVID-19 school closures presents challenges to connectivity and access to learning. In particular, girls often have fewer technical skills and less access to the internet, which may ultimately prevent them from acquiring the skills and know-how needed for the labor market.

The welcome announcement of promising vaccines against COVID-19 is critical as it can stem the spread of the virus – but what about the impact of the pandemic on other areas of a girl’s life which are critical to their growth and development such as access to education and training, and in turn jobs?

International Day of Education 2021 provides an important opportunity to reflect on this question, explore past trends using data from the Gender Data Portal, and renew our commitments to invest in girls’ education and to foster female labor force participation.


Fewer Learning Opportunities for Girls than Boys

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the good news was that primary and secondary school enrollments were growing steadily. Still, the Global Gender Parity index reveals that girls face consistent lags in learning opportunities compared to boys.  These gender gaps in enrollment are most evident in Sub-Saharan Africa, while in Latin American & the Caribbean, some countries show reverse gender gaps.

Girls’ participation in vocational programs is lower than boys

Trends show the share of girls in vocational programs has historically been lower than boys, and even in those countries with some level of gender parity, the gap between girls and boys is consistent or growing. This is so in all regions except in Sub-Saharan Africa where the gap appears to be reducing.

The implications are far-reaching: women are not only less likely than men to participate in the labor market, but when they do participate, they are more likely to be in informal, lower-paying jobs.  The rates of females in informal employment are highest in Latin America & the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa. In South Asia and the Middle East & North Africa there is an added layer of strict gender norms that restrict their movement, assign them to the domestic sphere (as in other regions), and pose security and transportation issues. Lastly, in some industries and occupations, men are the preferred candidates over women.


Females with intermediate or advanced education are more likely to be unemployed than males

Estimates of the unemployed labor force who have intermediate education (upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education) show that women are more likely to be unemployed than men.  For more than half the countries for which there are data in the Middle East & North Africa region - about 1 in 4 women with intermediate education are unemployed and about 1 in 3 women with advanced education are unemployed. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa also have several countries with high rates of unemployed females. These three regions also have the greatest gender gaps for both educational levels. On the other hand, Europe & Central Asia has both the lowest rates and smallest gender gaps.

What we would expect from the Pandemic

Evidence from prior crises points to increases in school dropouts, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancies, time spent caring for the household, food insecurity, and poverty. Such adverse effects lead to “learning loss” from the disruption of schooling and skilling, reduction in future lifetime earnings, and changes in job profiles that will leave girls and women less prepared to be equal partners in providing for households. While the extent of the impacts is still being studiedearly results from high-frequency surveys show higher rates of job loss for women than men and reduced sales and access to credit for women-owned firms. 


The way forward

Now more than ever, we see the importance and relevance of governments, public intervention, and the private sector in fostering gender parity and closing gender gaps. COVID-19 has drawn urgent attention to reversing learning losses and enhancing workforce development, for skilling, reskilling, and upgrading the skills of the stock of unemployed, for returning expatriate workforce, and the flow of youth who will comprise the future workforce. 

What should we invest in to foster gender parity and close gender gaps? 

  • eLearning infrastructure to promote lifelong learning with the option of stacking credentials. This would help to keep learning at play for all during COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Learning management systems and revamping curriculum offering foundational, intermediate, and advanced education (STEM-related) digital skills and socioemotional skills.
  • Inclusive, gender-sensitive content to promote social cohesion.
  • Employer-provided childcare on the premises, and early childhood development and education (ECCE). See example on Sri Lanka and global examples. Appropriate levels of ECCE will help release young adults, women, and men to pursue home-based or external entrepreneurship opportunities in traditional or non-traditional sectors.
  • Work-study in apprenticeship-type skills development to support on-the-job learning.
  • New coalitions and commitments between the public and private sectors, development partners, and civil society to foster innovative financing for development.

These are a few but potentially powerful options. Development Partners including the World Bank Group are focusing resources and channeling efforts on the responses to the risks and are reassessing outcomes.  Now is the opportunity to renew commitments and coalitions to ensure gender equality in education to foster women’s economic empowerment.


Shobhana Sosale

Senior Education Specialist, World Bank

Sarah Bunker

Data Fellow, Gender Group, World Bank

Laura McDonald

Operations Officer, Education Global Practice, World Bank

Eliana Rubiano-Matulevich

Senior Economist at the Poverty and Equity Global Practice for Latin American and the Caribbean at The World Bank

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