Gender gap is the difference between school enrollment, retention, and complete ratios between boys and girls. In most cases, gender gap is not in favor of girls. The World’s Women 2015 study states that 496 million women are illiterate, with significant hurdles to overcome in achieving the global goal of gender equality. However, the most recent World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report shows that the Arab world is closing its overall gender gap by 60%. This includes education attainment, political empowerment, health and survival, as well as, economic participation. Education and learning play a key role in bridging this gap.
The educational gender gap in the region has improved at a rate of 93%, which is an astounding improvement. In the space of just two generations, the magnitude of this widespread education movement has elevated the prospects of millions of Muslim women. Gender equality is simply good economics. It is good public policy, good for the education, health of children, and for the prosperity of the Arab world. As Sheryl Sandberg has emphasized in her book, ‘Lean In’, educating and empowering women to become leaders is not only good for women but for the society at large.
Increase in Access to Education in the Arab World
Access to education has dramatically increased in the past few decades in the Arab world. Almost all governments in the region, especially those that possess oil wealth, have made massive investments in education and learning over the past decade. This has resulted in a rapid increase in primary and secondary education rates from abysmally low starting points only half a century ago. Further, several governments in the region have stressed the importance of improving female access to education and have, thus, attempted to reduce gender gaps at different educational levels.
Almost all young girls in the region attend school and usually, the girls seem to outperform the boys academically. This shift has also occurred for women in higher education. The ratio of female to male higher education enrollment in the region is 108%. In Qatar, this ratio is even higher, at a staggering 676%. In the United Arab Emirates, women enroll in university at three times the rate of men and in Saudi Arabia; the university gender gap was closed a decade ago. These are two of the most improved countries in regards to efforts to close the gender gap. Other countries in the region are also catching up.
Although young women seek and succeed in education at higher rates than young men, they are far less likely to enter and remain in the job market. It is tragic that about three out of four Arab women remain outside the active labor force. It is imperative to understand and remove barriers that have hindered women from working. Such a step will yield significant social and economic benefits to every country in the region.
There has been significant progress in terms of education and learning, especially in primary education. 60% of the countries in the region have ensured universal primary education by 2015 and that percentage keeps on growing. However, there is still much to be done for secondary levels and higher education to catch up with an ever globalizing world.
There needs to be more stress on sustained improvement of education and learning especially with regards to women. Arabs have spent more of their GDP on education than any other developing region but these resources can be spent in a more effective manner. With the help of Panworld Education providing educational content and technology, quality of education can be improved. Even in the past, they’ve closely worked with Ministries of Education to implement their educational policies.
More Women at Work
As female education becomes deeply rooted and normalized within family structures, the next wave of change is under way: more women are going to work. Education and learning contribute directly to the growth of the nation by improving the capabilities of the labor force. Without proper education and learning, women are unable to partake in opportunities that global trends bring about, like joining a growing export market, or creating their own business.
Increasing women’s access to education will also increase their participation in the labor force. Thus, improvement in women’s educational conditions can be equated with the improvement for the nation. Research has shown that return on investments, when it comes to education, for women is either equal to or higher than of men’s. Earlier on, women in the Arab world were working in the agricultural sector but with improved access to education and learning, they can seek better opportunities to support themselves, as well as their families.
Children of educated mothers are more likely to be enrolled in schools and learn. Improved incomes because of learning and education have also led women to plan careers instead of merely holding jobs. For those still out of the labor force, it is extremely important for the government to recognize and remove barriers that are stopping these women from working. Many women are setting excellent examples of leadership in the Arab world. In Lebanon, where entrepreneurship among women is amongst the highest in the region, technology has lowered the cost of access to entrepreneurship and facilitated the ability of women to find employment.
Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the minister of International Cooperation and Development in the UAE has put it well when she said, “When a society doesn’t focus on female education, you see after a while that it does not provide women with enough opportunities. In the UAE today, we’ve seen that education for women has been a priority since the inception of the state and women were able to access many sectors because of education.” While it is important to recognize that a large number of Arab women still do face societal and business challenges, powerful women leaders are pushing forward, creating pathways and inspiring others to follow their lead.
Positive Effects of Education: Women and Society
Education and learning have positive implications in terms of economic growth, employment, mortality rates, family planning and reproductive health, and overall well-being of citizens. It is a tool for empowerment and sustainable development. Women, who are educated, want their families and children to be educated and employed as well. This keeps generations after generations motivated in educating themselves, learning, and growing.
Education is also a key factor in ending global poverty. Employment opportunities have increased with education and learning. With an increase in employment opportunities, income also increases. In areas where access, attendance and quality of education have seen improvements, a reduction in the spread of HIV/AIDS is clearly visible. There is even an increase in the health of the community in general. The impact of education and learning is also reflected in lower crime rates, greater economic growth, and improved social services.
What the Future Holds
The growth of educated women is exponential. Education and learning has positive and far-reaching impacts for economies. However, it is clear that much work still remains to be done and that the pace of change must be accelerated in some areas. Improving access to education and improving the quality of education are the most rewarding investments a country can make. By investing in women’s education, governments will benefit by enhanced economic and social development, improved human capital, and reduction in poverty.
While the gender gap has narrowed significantly, effective strategies in educational policies can increase enrollment and quality of education and learning even further. Large gaps between women and men’s labor force participation that remain can be remedied by providing solutions to increase participation of women in the workforce across the Arab world. This will reflect in a spiked GDP for the nations.