This year’s Global Education Monitoring Report brought out by UNESCO has documented an interesting, refreshingly new trend – of school-going girls covering the gender gap in mathematics, so far considered the domain of boys.
The report calls for renewed introspection on gender inequality and the barriers that still hold girls back from realising their potential.
UNESCO on Wednesday published promising news in the global fight for gender equality and opportunity, showing that when it comes to mathematics, girls are now performing as strongly as boys in early grades. Yet, as the gender gap favouring boys in early grades gradually disappears, there are still plenty of barriers holding them back.
The UNESCO finding, ‘Deepening the debate on those still left behind’, followed an analysis of primary and secondary education in 120 countries in primary and secondary education to offer a global picture. The findings show that in the early years, boys perform better than girls in mathematics but, this gender gap disappears later.
Although boys perform better than girls in the subject in the early years, this gender gap disappears in secondary school – even in the world’s poorest countries – researchers found.
This study confirms that the gender gap in learning has closed even in the poorest countries. And in some countries, the gap is now reversed. For example, by grade 8, the gap is in favour of girls in mathematics by 7 percentage points in Malaysia, by 3 points in Cambodia, by 1.7 points in Congo and by 1.4 points in the Philippines.
Girls lead by leaps
While girls perform well in mathematics and science, they perform even better in reading. More girls achieve minimum proficiency in reading than boys. The largest gap in primary education is in Saudi Arabia, where 77 per cent of girls but only 51 per cent of boys in grade 4 achieve minimum proficiency in reading.
In Thailand, girls outperform boys in reading by 18 percentage points, in the Dominican Republic by 11 points and in Morocco by 10 points. Even in countries where girls and boys are at the same level in reading in the early grades, as in Lithuania and Norway, the gap in favour of girls rises to roughly 15 percentage points by age 15.
Time to shed biases
However, biases and stereotypes are still likely to affect learning outcomes. Even though girls catch up in mathematics in upper primary and secondary education, “boys are far more likely to be overrepresented” among the highest performers in mathematics in all countries.
In middle- and high-income countries, girls in secondary school are scoring significantly higher in science. Despite this advantage, girls are still less likely to opt for scientific careers, indicating that gender biases could still be obstacles to the pursuit of further education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Image: UNICEF / Mithila Jariwala