Reducing the Gender Gap in Education

by Quentin Wodon

The International Day of the Girl Child earlier this month was an opportunity to remind ourselves that girls are among the primary victims of violence, and that they continue to, in many countries, have limited education and employment opportunities.

There has been substantial progress towards gender equity in basic education, but large gaps remain at the secondary level. In the Figure below from the World Bank’s Global Monitoring Report (GMR) just published, countries are ranked on the horizontal axis according to GDP per capita. Gaps in secondary school completion by gender are displayed on the vertical axis. The sizes of the dots represent the size of the countries’ population. Data are provided for sub-Saharan countries in orange and South Asian countries in blue. On average, a boy remains 1.55 times more likely than a girl to complete secondary school in the countries in the sample. The gaps are larger in poorer countries. But there is also a lot of variation around the regression line, suggesting that it is feasible to reduce gender gaps in attainment even in low income countries.

Ratio of Secondary School Completion Rates by Gender

Source: World Bank Global Monitoring Report.

Multiple reasons may explain why boys and girls drop out before completing secondary school. For example, in a 2012/13 survey for Uganda, parents mentioned the cost of education as the main reason for dropping out for both boys and girls. The fact that a child was not willing to continue his or her education came up next, but for girls an even more important reason for dropping out was pregnancy, often linked to early marriage. A sickness or calamity in the family was also mentioned as a reason for dropping out, as was the fact that some children did not make enough progress in school. When similar questions were asked to head teachers, differences between boys and girls emerged even more clearly. For boys, lack of interest and employment were key reasons for dropping out. For girls, pregnancies and child marriage came up strong, with these in turn likely to be related to poverty and limited employment prospects as well as cultural factors.

Because multiple reasons may contribute to gender gaps in attainment, the types of interventions that could be implemented to reduce these gender gaps are also multiple. Should the distance to schools be reduced, whether this is done by building new schools in remote areas or reducing travel time through public transportation? Should scholarships be provided to girls, as successfully pioneered by Bangladesh several decades ago? Should more female teachers be hired? Should the priority be to make separate toilet blocks available for boys and girls? Should more focus be placed on understanding and changing cultural practices? Choosing between these and many other potential interventions is often difficult and clearly responses depend on country context. But reviews of the evidence can help, and such reviews are now becoming more available thanks to a substantial increase in rigorous impact evaluations in recent years.

One such review was published in June 2014 by a team of academics led by UNESCO and funded by the UK’s Department for International Development. The review assessed the evidence on the impact of interventions for girls’ education focusing on (i) providing resources (including transfers) and infrastructure, (ii) changing institutions, and (iii) changing norms and including the most marginalized in education decision making. The review summarized the impact of different types of interventions on three outcomes: participation, learning, and empowerment. For each type of intervention and category of outcome, the evidence on the likelihood of impact was classified as strong, promising, limited, or needed (i.e., weak).

For participation, the evidence on the impact of conditional cash transfers, information about the potential employment returns to education, and the provision of additional schools in underserved and unsafe areas was found to be strong. This was also the case for the evidence on some interventions related to teacher training, group-learning, and measures to promote girl-friendly schools as well as learning outside the classroom, for example through tutoring. Several of these interventions (group-learning, programs for learning outside the classroom, and scholarships linked to student performance) were also found to have clear impacts on learning. The evidence on the impact of interventions on empowerment was generally found to be weaker.

This type of review and the studies on which such reviews are based are of high value for policy-makers. The World Bank has also started to put together a systematic database of impact evaluations and its Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund is providing funding for rigorous evaluations. What else is needed? We need more experiments and evaluations. But we also need assessments of the cost effectiveness of various types of interventions, so that Ministries of Education can make the right decision under their budget constraints. And we need more research on the political economy of program expansion to understand how great innovations can be scaled up and sustained.

Note: this post is reproduced with minor edits from a post published on October 29, 2014 on the World Bank’s Let’s Talk Development blog available at

Leave a Reply