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date: 30 September 2023

Gender Equity in Global Education Policyfree

Gender Equity in Global Education Policyfree

  • Karen MonkmanKaren MonkmanDePaul University


Since the 1990s gender has become a prominent priority in global education policy. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000–2015) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, which replaced the MDGs) influence the educational planning of most low- and middle-income countries, along with the work of the various actors in the field. The historical antecedents to this era of gender and education policy include international development research beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the Women’s Conferences in Mexico City (1985) and Beijing (1995), and increasingly nuanced academic research on gender and international development in the early decades of the 2000s. What began as calls to include girls in schooling and women in international development programs has become a much more complex attempt to ensure gender equity in education and in life. A wide variety of key policy actors are involved in these processes and in shaping policy, including the World Bank, the UN agencies (primarily UNICEF and UNESCO), governments (both donors and recipients of international assistance), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), corporations and private entities, and consultants. Partnerships among various actors have been common in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

Persistent issues in the early 21st century include (a) the tension between striving to attend to quality concerns while increasing efforts to measure progress, (b) gender-based violence (GBV), and (c) education for adolescents and adolescence. These challenges are closely linked to how key concepts are conceptualized. How “gender” is understood (distinct from or conflated with sex categories) leads to particular ways of thinking about policy and practice, from counting girls and boys in classrooms (prioritizing sex categories and numerical patterns), toward a more complex understanding of gender as a social construction (and so presents options for curricular strategies to influence gendered social norms). Men and boys are acknowledged, mostly when they are perceived to be disadvantaged, and less often to challenge hypermasculinity or male privilege. Sexuality and gender identity are just beginning to emerge in formal policy in the early 21st century. Gender relations and patriarchy remain on the periphery of official policy language. Equity (fairness) is often reduced to equality (equal treatment despite differences in needs or interests). Although empowerment is theorized in research, in policy it is used inconsistently, sometimes falling short of the theoretical framings. Two broader concepts are also important to consider in global education policy, namely, intersectionality and neoliberalism. Engaging intersectionality more robustly could make policy more relevant locally; as of 2020, this concept has not made its way into global policy discourses. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, is a strong influence in shaping policy in gender and education globally, yet it is seldom made explicit. Building policy on a stronger conceptual foundation would enrich gender and education policy.


  • Education, Change, and Development
  • Educational Politics and Policy
  • Globalization, Economics, and Education
  • Education, Gender, and Sexualities


Gender, in global education policy, has become a key priority since the 1990s, in part because of gender being catapulted onto the international development radar following the Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. The time was right for making gender more visible in policy because of foundational research in the gender and development field in the 1970s and beyond. Education, as a research and practice field, is interdisciplinary and influenced by work in the social sciences and humanities, alongside its own contributions in situating itself in a broad sociocultural, economic, and political environment. While the core question about whether education shapes society or whether it is a reflection of society remains, and answers depend on one’s ideological leanings, the relationships between gender, educational processes and policy, and larger societal concerns related to the improvements in people’s lives remain a driving force in how gender and education are engaged in international development arenas, including policy.

Global education policy is primarily manifested in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and agendas promoted by development agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that focus primarily on low- and middle-income countries. In addition to approaches that focus on schooling (mostly on girls’ education), many development projects include components that include learning processes, and so have an educational component. After an historical overview (in “Putting Gender on the Global Policy Agenda”), “Key Actors and the Shaping of Agendas” in this policy arena are discussed, followed by “Current Issues in Policy and Perspective,” and a discussion on Conceptualizing Key Concepts in Global Gender Education Policy.”

Putting Gender on the Global Policy Agenda

Prior to the 1970s, gender was rarely included in global education policy and international development policy. Boserup’s (1970) analysis of women in rural agricultural production revealed women’s long-term and deep involvement in society and the economy, and absence from development programs and agendas. Her work shifted the development community’s focus to recognize the importance of women in economic development and to focus on inclusion. In this same era, international education policy was understood to be largely in service to economic development: schooling and adult education were intended to produce knowledgeable citizens who would contribute to the economic system, thereby building nations’ infrastructure. Secondarily, schooling was understood as a tool to instill a particular national identity, most consciously in newly independent countries and countries actively re-envisioning their sense of collective identity. Boserup’s (1970) complex analysis showed that women are integrally involved, even if not recognized, in economic structures as workers—paid, underpaid, and unpaid—in the formal sector, the informal sector, and domestic arenas. She argued that education was integral to women’s ability to participate in national development, and that their exclusion negatively impacted economic development nationally and regionally. Subsequent research fine-tuned this analysis of women’s contributions to national development processes (Kabeer, 1997; Moser, 1993; and others).

At the same time, beginning with the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, followed by the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, women became a clear force to be reckoned with in global policy and development practice. Women and girls became the focus of a key policy goal (Goal 5 of six goals) in the Education for All (EFA) agenda, headed by UNESCO, which shaped education policy globally from 2000. Also in 2000, the United Nations positioned gender prominently in the MDGs, also in 2000. Within the eight MDGs, Goal 2 states that all children—including girls—are to be enrolled in primary education, and Goal 3 names reaching gender parity (equal numbers of girls and boys) in all levels of education [schooling].

Adding women and/or girls to already existing policy priorities and structures has been widely referred to as a women in development (WID) approach. In education, this approach was built on an emerging understanding that mothers’ educational levels related to social indicators such as fertility rates and daughters’ educational attainment: mothers with higher levels of educational attainment had fewer children, began having children later, and more often sent their daughters to school (Subbarao & Raney, 1995, p. 124).

The WID approach became seen as inadequate, as merely adding women was not changing the structures of gender inequality in education or development policy. A brief era of women and development (WAD) attempted to situate women as partners in development; it was followed by a gender and development (GAD) approach that sought to problematize the sole focus on women and acknowledge gender as a social construction embedded in social structures (Rathgeber, 1990), in short, to engage a more robust notion of gender. Research also revealed policy approaches that prioritized practical and often immediate needs or interests over strategic interests that would alter structures of inequality (Molyneux, 1985). Around the same time, Moser’s (1993) analysis of gender-related development approaches showed five types: welfare, equity, anti-poverty, efficiency, and empowerment. It is the empowerment-related approaches that have the potential to alter inequitable social structures. Also, in the 1990s, notions like empowerment began to be theorized with respect to gender and education.

The focus on women and girls has persisted in global gender and education policy. Women have often been seen as mothers who would shape the next generation, and as workers, for example, potential contributors to the economy. One can also see ongoing dialogues about equity, equality, empowerment, and other such concepts that were intended to challenge simplistic assumptions that formal schooling would solve gender imbalances in society. With most of the policy focus on access to schooling and parity (equal numbers of boys and girls enrolled), however, there have also been active calls for attention to quality since the late 1990s, which focused attention on content in school curriculum and gender-friendly pedagogies. Influenced by gender studies and various social sciences, there has also been a growing recognition that sex and gender are not the same (despite much of the policy language using “gender” when “sex” is meant) and that gender is socially constructed (which means that changing gender relations involves more than legislating narrow policy goals such as enrollment and parity). Policy, by its very nature, prioritizes things that can be understood quickly and easily measured to assess progress, reducing the framing of complex concepts, which is met by a continuing call for more complex conceptualizations of educational quality and a richer understanding of gender. The persistence of attention on girls and women (vs. boys and men, gender relations, and gender identities) is perhaps beginning to shift in the second decade of the 21st century, if not in global policy, in practice.

Key Actors and the Shaping of Policy Agendas

At the global level, key actors are many, and their roles change over time and across location. The World Bank has become the largest funder of education in low-income countries, and, as such, has become a powerful policy actor. Despite World Bank rhetoric suggesting it is a development agency, it is a bank that supports educational initiatives (and imposes conditionalities) that structure education and development in ways that align with World Bank priorities (Klees, Stromquist, Samoff, & Vally, 2019). The World Bank states its “twin goals” as “ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity” (cited widely by the World Bank), with its newest discursive call to “end learning poverty” (World Bank, 2019), which it defines as follows:

Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. This indicator brings together schooling and learning indicators: it begins with the share of children who haven’t achieved minimum reading proficiency (as measured in schools) and is adjusted by the proportion of children who are out of school (and are assumed not able to read proficiently).

(World Bank, 2019, p. 6)

The World Bank (2019) argues that “53% of all children in low- and middle-income countries suffer from learning poverty” (p. 6), and that girls have lower rates of learning than boys (p. 16). Despite this new discursive framing of education (which applies a poverty metaphor to learning), its recommended strategies focus on literacy development through ensuring clear understandings of policy goals, effective teaching, access to more and better texts, and using languages in schools that children speak and understand. In much of this new policy language, gender is mentioned only to compare statistical measures for girls and boys, referred to as a gender gap.

Although ending (class-based) poverty is a necessary goal, understanding relationships between education and poverty (and economic development) is also necessary for initiatives to address the perceived cause. This depends on one’s ideological, political, and/or philosophical orientation, which tend to remain unnamed in most policy language and by some policy actors. Critical theorists, for example, argue that inequitable social structures create educational and gender inequalities, so those structures need to be challenged and dismantled. Human capital theorists argue that improving education would stimulate the economy and reduce poverty, which would also eliminate gender inequities. The direction of causation in this logic (i.e., does education change society or does it reflect society?) is not agreed on. In today’s world, neoliberal economic ideas strongly influence policy—including education and gender policy—by prioritizing the development of the market (the economic structure); promoting competition through high stakes educational assessments, privatization, and choice; making communities responsible for their own educational systems; and valuing traditional measures of educational access and attainment (enrollment data, completion of grades or levels of schooling, drop-out rates, etc.) over those that might provide insights into more complex dynamics related to gender equity in education. Ending poverty and boosting prosperity—the World Bank’s goals—are pursued through neoliberal strategies related to market development, which is the World Bank’s foundational policy priority (Klees et al., 2019).

The United Nations agencies, especially UNESCO and UNICEF, have also been consistently involved in global education policy and practice. Pertinent to education policy, UNICEF’s mandate is children, and UNESCO’s is education. Both recognize gender as integral. UNICEF and UNESCO function and are structured differently. UNESCO tends to function by consensus of member states, whereas UNICEF field offices and regions (and UNICEF itself) have more local autonomy. UNICEF has a well-developed gender equality framework (see UNICEF, 2018), situated in a broader human rights agenda, which translates into funding that also supports a variety of programs that local field offices deem relevant. UNICEF partners with other organizations and NGOs. Of the top 10 contributions to UNICEF’s work on gender equality in 2017, Gucci and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation joined Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, Luxembourg, and Italy, along with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) (UNICEF, 2018), in reflecting the addition of corporations and foundations to the historical patterns of national contributions.

UNESCO’s mission is to build peace internationally in education, the sciences, and culture; it names gender equality as one of its two top priority areas (along with sub-Saharan Africa). They are the lead organization guiding the work on the SDGs. In education, UNESCO

aims to address persisting gender disparities and to promote gender equality throughout the education system: in participation in education (access), within education (contents, teaching and learning context and practices, delivery modes, and assessments) and through education (learning outcomes, life and work opportunities).

(UNESCO, 2014, pp. 12 and 28)

Other UN organizations such as UN Women (formerly UNIFEM), UN Development Programme (UNDP), and UNFPA also address gender, with educational foci related to their guiding agendas. Although these are useful for framing gender in development work, their attention to education is limited.

Governments—both donors and recipients of international aid funding—also set policy agendas. Donor agencies (aka bilateral agencies) such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.K.’s Department for International Development (DfID), the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), and the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), among others, provide development funds to countries that reflect their priorities. Sweden, Iceland, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Norway donor agencies have prioritized gender and education (OECD, 2019); they are known for having a progressive orientation in their policy priorities, including engaging gender-based violence, sexuality, and a more complex notion of the social construction of gender.

In addition to donor agencies, recipient countries shape their gender and education agendas through their development plans. In all countries, gender becomes framed in ways that reflect nation states’ cultural values and beliefs, and development agendas. Although multilateral organizations’ (UN organizations and the World Bank) and bilateral agencies’ funds may prescribe particular ways of conceptualizing gender equity and gender equality, some countries might minimize goals related to gender, or refocus them, to avoid delicate cultural concerns. The tension here becomes how gender is understood in national and local contexts and cultures versus the lens that multinational or bilateral development agencies from the Global North prioritize. Concerns such as comprehensive sex education, reproductive rights, or women’s rights related to owning land, voting, working outside the home, divorce and child custody, or driving are examples.

Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do much of the work in projects and programs funded by bilateral and multilateral agencies. They implement the broader policies, thereby adding another layer of policy interpretation. They also rely on other funding sources in their projects and programs. Gender-related priorities within NGOs vary widely, with some focused on direct strategies and outcomes such as incentives to get girls into school, whereas others challenge deeper social structural dynamics in ways that involve communities and seek to change structures of inequities. Examples of the latter include the work of Tostan, an NGO in Senegal that also works in other African countries. Its curriculum focuses on women’s health and empowerment, human rights, and social change processes that allow communities to determine what issues they want to pursue and how to best pursue them. The educational component of its work relates to the curricula, which revolves around basic hygiene, reproductive health, and human rights, and to its pedagogical processes of engaging communities in setting agendas and promoting their own interests. Many communities in which Tostan works engage issues such as domestic violence or female genital cutting, emanating from their newly developed understandings of gender inequities (Monkman, Miles, & Easton, 2007). CARE, another example, is an international NGO with a well-developed gender policy framework that has evolved over time. Its gender transformative approach has a dual focus on women’s empowerment and men’s engagement, and prioritizes strategies that create more gender equitable attitudes, behaviors, and structures (CARE,2020. Its work in Cambodia situates gender among other concerns (multilingual education, early childhood development, teacher education, and various development initiatives). Like Tostan’s approach, CARE acknowledges the complexities of context while prioritizing involvement by communities in setting agendas. In its initial work on gender and education in remote Cambodian villages, the NGO’s assumptions about why girls were not in school were abandoned in favor of community-identified structural reasons, which the communities then prioritized. Schooling enrollments and attainment expanded exponentially, with the two largest influences being the use of indigenous languages of instruction and restructuring the division of labor for children’s chores so boys shared girls’ chores (Monkman, 2018). Other secondary influences informed their education work also, such as having wells dug closer to homes to reduce the time required for water transport, which also increased girls’ time available for school. These kinds of approaches are much more complex and time-consuming than those that offer incentives that are intended to generate quick responses; they also have more potential for locally driven sustainability.

Corporations, foundations, and private entities have become more involved in gender and education policy and implementation in the 2000s. Oprah’s creation of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa is well known. Gucci and the Gates Foundation are 2 of the top 10 contributors to UNICEF’s gender equality work. The Patsy Collins Trust Fund Initiative funds programs at CARE. Mastercard Foundation puts gender concerns on their priority list. Nike is well known for The Girl Effect and also funds its Grassroots Girls Initiative and work on HIV/AIDS. Corporate actors—including foundations spun off from the corporations—are relative newcomers to the field. Each comes with its own agenda. Although much of their work is laudable, critiques of some of the corporate foundations focus on an underlying neoliberal interest in creating a new generation of consumers to benefit the corporations (Moeller, 2018).

Consultants are another important type of actor. They are often hired to help conceptualize ideas or provide analyses of issues that are foundational to the priorities of the funders or to evaluate programs. Consultants are self-employed, work for consulting agencies, or are academics who are hired for specific purposes. As such, the individuals who do consulting work are in dialogue with all of the other types of actors as they interact with them around the purposes of the consultations. Most are experts in a particular geographical region and/or educational sector, and in our field, in gender. They can function as a conduit through which ideas are shared and are collectively changed over time, thereby influencing policy agendas.

Partnerships among these various actors have become prominent since the 1990s. While partnerships avoid duplication and magnify the work because of multiple actors working together, a more critical perspective identifies that partnership work often sinks to the lowest common denominator, losing some social change orientations or processes, as all partners have to agree on policy priorities and implementation strategies. The most prevalent partnership that focuses specifically on gender and education is the UN Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI). UNGEI has been highly involved in shaping how a gender focus has continued in moving from the MDGs to the SDGs. Some benefits to collaborative partnerships are that policy directions can gain widespread support and can have input from many diverse actors. Plan International (an international NGO), for example, has recently engaged many gender scholars in a consultation to gather perspectives that can shape future policy on gender transformation. Through the partnerships, and beyond them (as when consultants are hired), ideas are shared, and policies are indirectly shaped by this global network of gender and education scholars and practitioners.

Current Issues in Policy and Practice

Although priorities may vary across institutions and regions, several key issues are at the forefront of policy in 2020 and persist as prevalent. Three are discussed here: (a) a tension between how quality is conceptualized and measured, (b) gender-based violence, and (c) puberty and education for adolescents.

Conceptualizing Quality and Measuring Progress

For several decades academics and practitioners have been calling for the girls’ education field to move policy beyond counting bodies in seats in schools (access and parity) to quality concerns in curriculum, pedagogy, and related contextual influences. Some progress has been made, yet there is still a lot to be done.

“Quality” is often used as a broad and messy term to include everything that would or could or does make education worthwhile, effective, and a positive influence on the future of individuals and communities. At the same time, there is pressure to measure progress. Measuring messy concepts is challenging, as assessment strategies often simplify complex ideas in order to measure them. As we have seen in the SDGs and their translation to indicators, targets, and benchmarks (Unterhalter, 2019), a lot can be lost in that translation.

Issues related to quality are more difficult to reduce to clear policy priorities for which progress can be easily measured than, for example, counting bodies in seats. Test scores and educational attainment data are often used as a proxy for quality, yet they do not directly assess quality; they assume that students learned what was intended—and testing confirmed that—so the quality of teaching must have been adequate. Typical shortcomings are those stated by Oxfam (Afridi, 2018), in this case as related to a public–private partnership project involving low-fee private schools in Pakistan:

The World Bank argues [it has] generated large and rapid gains in both enrollment and learning achievement . . . PEF [the Peabody Education Foundation that administers the program], in its own reports, bases its growth on its increasing enrollment numbers, as well as the percentage of children passing the QAT [Quality Assurance Test] in schools signed up to its programs. However, test scores do not provide a complete picture of the quality of education . . . and it is critical to look at other factors that affect the quality of education, including physical facilities and school environment, the effects of a high stakes testing system, private tuition taken by students, and teachers’ qualifications and training.

(Afridi, 2018, p. 33; in-text citations omitted)

Reducing messy concepts such as quality to measurable outcomes is a common challenge in many countries. It is much easier to assess enrollment, attainment, and test scores, as they are all based on descriptive statistics (despite weaknesses in the quality of that data in many regions). And it is easy to see that “physical facilities and school environment, the effects of a high stakes testing system, private tuition taken by students, and teachers’ qualifications and training” (Afridi, 2018, p. 33) are only some concerns that affect quality. Understanding the content taught (curriculum), the quality of instruction (pedagogy), and the experience of learning and what is not taught or learned is much more difficult, but necessary if education is to alter inequitable social structures. Some promising approaches are engaging students to critically understand and challenge norms and power structures that give rise to gender inequities; one example is Promundo’s Programme H, which works with young men (Promundo, n.d.). Other issues that relate to quality include safety within schools and in students’ journeys to and from school. The particular issues that impact quality of learning are shaped by particular contexts. Creating a universal mechanism for evaluating progress can too easily prioritize some things (those easily measured) over others (those that are not) and influence policy through valuing what can be measured.

Gender-Based Violence (GBV)

School-related gender-based violence (GBV) can be sexual, physical, or psychological threats or violence that are enforced by gender norms and unequal power dynamics, and that occur in and around school or in relation to schooling. Experiencing GBV deters children—usually girls—from attending school, diminishes their ability to engage in their schoolwork, and generally makes the school experience a negative one. GBV includes bullying, but can also lead to unintended pregnancy, or acquiring HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. UNGEI (n.d.) finds that “an estimated 246 million children experience violence in and around school every year” (p. 1). The most successful programs that seek to minimize GBV tend to focus on root causes “from gender and social norms and stereotypes to systematic inequalities and unequal power dynamics” (UNGEI, n.d., p. 4), and call for action involving governments, school governance, teachers, communities, and parents. Creating school reporting requirements; improving curriculum, textbooks, pedagogy, and teacher and staff training; and addressing the relationship of home-based violence and school-based violence reflect a systemic approach. As with issues related to quality, assessing progress is challenging. Although the SDGs do not name GBV as one of the 16 primary goals, some indicators seek to assess the prevalence of GBV. SDG-4a monitors the percentage of students experiencing GBV as related to schooling; SDG-5 focuses on girls 15 years and older who experience sexual violence; and SDG-16.2, on children’s experience of physical and/or psychological aggression by caregivers and on young women and men 18–29 years old who experienced sexual violence when they were a child. It is challenging to match the benchmarks to targets to the indicators of the broader goals in the SDGs (Unterhalter, 2019). Although this alignment is improving, the gaps between them mean that the things measured do not always add up to the intention of the goals.

Beyond assessing prevalence, many initiatives seek to minimize GBV within schools, on the journeys to and from school, and in communities. Some programs provide bicycles to girls so they can travel to and from school more rapidly while trying to avoid men and boys along the way. Others include discussion of GBV in sex education or adolescent life skills programs. Although some recognize complex underpinnings of GBV such as cultural beliefs about gender relations and patriarchal social structures, changing those foundational structures remains a challenge (Le Mat, Kosar-Altinyelken, Box, & Volman, 2019). GBV is often intertwined with economic need and/or beliefs about HIV/AIDS. In some regions, girls have a hard time resisting sugar daddies’ offers of economic stability, which alleviates economic strife but also tends to derail school attendance and can situate the girls in precarious positions. The most promising policy initiatives position GBV in complex social contexts and seek to challenge the underlying structures and values that define violence as normative (Parkes, Johnson Ross, & Heslop, 2020).

Adolescence, Gender, and Education

As enrollments increased in primary schools globally, attention has shifted to post-primary educational concerns, whether in or out of school. Education related to puberty has gained increased global policy attention. This trend includes education about adolescence and education for adolescents. Where cultural beliefs allow, sex education occurs, and sometimes it can be approached comprehensively. In other contexts, however, sex education is not allowed or is constrained in scope. In many countries, sex education is combined with HIV education, although in others, it can be challenging to use education as a strategy to reduce HIV exposure because of taboos about sex and HIV. Other approaches focus on encouraging young women to delay sex or marriage, and on providing life skills courses for adolescents.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) is a public health approach that focuses on accessing safe water (to drink), using toilets (so water systems are not polluted), and basic hygiene practices such as handwashing and reduction of flies on food (to reduce the spread of disease). When related to gender, educational work with adolescents focuses on menstrual health and hygiene—ensuring that menstruating girls have access to toilets and privacy, water, and sanitary supplies. Without these basic conditions, many girls stop going to school.

Growing out of these basic needs for girls is a trend toward puberty education for both boys and girls. Marni Sommer, for example, conducts research with adolescents and their communities, engages them in educational initiatives, and creates locally tailored books on puberty for girls and boys. Adolescents welcome the knowledge, as talking about puberty with parents and community members is often taboo, limited in scope, or uncomfortable (Sommer, Hirsch, Nathanson, & Parker, 2015).

Educating adolescents as pertains to gender can also focus on life skills for adolescent girls and boys, in or out of school, but often at the point they are vulnerable to dropping out of school. Approaches to life skills education varies—some programs are broad, and others are specific. For example, World Education (2019) implemented an HIV-focused Life Skills program in 220 schools in Swaziland between 2015 and 2017. It also supports Cambodia’s National Life Skills Education Policy through a teacher education approach focused on general life skills and pre-vocational and career skills. Its approach in Nepal is literacy-based, where out-of-school students learn “key life skills—from health and cleanliness to avoiding being trafficked—while learning to read” (World Education, 2019, para. 3). Gender is pertinent in most of these approaches, as gender structures in societies shape norms for who is trafficked or sought out for sex, and how sexual relations become a strategy related to beliefs about HIV transmission. As with other areas in education, the more closely life skills education is informed by local context, the more relevant it will be seen by local adolescents and community members.

These topics of conceptualizing educational quality and progress, GBV, and adolescence, along with others, are informed by underlying assumptions about the role of children and adolescents in society, and about education and gender. The ways that these are understood shape how people make decisions in their lives. A tension often exists between formal policy and critical approaches to educational practice; that is, policy seeks to simplify complex issues, and critical perspectives seek to do the opposite. Policy needs to be understood by everyone expected to implement it, hopefully in unambiguous ways, so simplifying concepts is seen as helping the implementation and buy-in processes. To critical educators, such simplification misses the points related to critical analysis. Without a deep analysis of complex social, cultural, political, and economic issues, priorities and strategies are likely to be misguided. Conceptual challenges impact policy and practice.

Conceptualizing Key Concepts in Global Gender Education Policy

A range of issues are persistently under-theorized in global gender and education policy. They include (a) how gender is understood; (b) how equity, equality, and empowerment are conceptualized and put into practice; (c) how intersectionality could better inform policy and practice; and (d) how neoliberalism shapes gender and education policy.

What Is “Gender” in the Global Policy Arena?

Basic definitions continue to be a challenge. Assumptions about terminology shape people’s thinking, so it is important to consider what is meant by the terms we use.

Gender Versus Sex

Policy makers heard the call, made since the 1990s, to move from just counting boys and girls or men and women to focusing on gender as a social construction that shapes gendered social relations. Terminology was changed, but the conceptual underpinnings often remain unchanged. Relying on widely accepted sociological conceptualizations of sex, gender, and gender identity, one would expect that counting boys, girls, women, or men would be labeled “sex,” and “gender” would be used to acknowledge the social constructions of meanings of what it means to be female or male. Gender identity suggests a more complex continuum acknowledging varieties of identity related to gender and sexuality, yet, in global policy glimpses of gender identity are just beginning to be seen, likely because issues such as sexual orientation and transgender identity have not been accepted or recognized by all countries or communities.

Global education policy uses the term “gender” quite often, but usually to mark the counting of female or male bodies in seats in schools. Although academic research has a much fuller engagement with gender (see the work of Nancy Kendall, Fran Vavrus, Elaine Unterhalter, Nelly Stromquist, and many others), policy discourses are more limited. UNESCO’s annual Global Education Monitoring Report (GEMR), for example, reports on progress relative to the SDGs. Access to education, parity, literacy rates, educational attainment (levels of schooling or grades completed), and such are reported as disaggregated data by “gender” [meaning sex]. Statistical data, while important for following trends over time, reduces “gender” to sex categories of male and female, not only by UNESCO, but by many others. Some argue that the continuing approach to accountability that prioritizes numeric measures reduces possibilities for a richer engagement with concepts such as gender that are not numerically measurable (Monkman & Hoffman, 2013; Unterhalter, 2019). Despite calls for a focus on gender since the 1990s, policy discourses continue to prioritize numerically comparative measures of boys and girls (and women and men) in participation in education. Assessments of more complex goals such as quality in education, curricular content related to gender relations, or robust understandings of equity or empowerment remain a challenge.

Men and Boys

More attention is being paid to men and boys in gender and education policy, but mostly as it relates to educational areas where boys are lagging behind (Lefoka, 2007; UNGEI, 2012). With parity being reached in many countries, girls have outpaced boys in some. A superficial reading of this changing trend calls for “what about the boys?” but other analyses reveal more complex dynamics. In some regions, for example, girls stay in school longer because the jobs available to boys are not available to girls, so they have no other option—there are no jobs to lure them away from school. Too much of a focus on parity obfuscates an understanding of why, which could reveal more about gendered life experience and opportunity.

Masculinities and Gender Relations

In the United States and other industrialized spaces, gender scholarship has developed a rich body of knowledge about masculinities, in addition to the previous and continuing work on the lived experience of women and girls. It has also complicated our thinking about gender, challenging us to not reduce gender to men and women or boys and girls, but to see it as a social construction embedded in social relations.

Scholarship that focuses on boys, men, and masculinities is often focused on negative aspects such as dominance over women, violence, hypermasculinity, or male privilege. Some studies of school experience acknowledge how boys and girls are treated differently in schools, based on cultural values related to the relevance of education for girls and boys (Page & Jha, 2009), or how male and female teachers fare differently in their jobs (Molyneaux, 2011) because of gender bias. Our challenge in moving into the future is to support research that gathers more nuanced data so that analysis can more fully understand social processes related to masculinities, gender identities, and the gendered social relations and values that inform them—that is, a fuller understanding of gender—and to encourage policy to reflect these perspectives.

Equality, Equity, and Empowerment in Global Policy

Policy language about equity and equality has shifted over time and, like gender and sex, does not always clearly delineate the two concepts. Paralleling the WID era in the early 1970s, the focus was on equality as both strategy and goal. The understanding was that if women are included in development arenas, everyone will be better off—they should have access to the same programs that men have, and should have the same opportunities, including educational opportunities. A concern for justice and fairness, related to human rights arguments and also to the GAD approaches in the late 1970s in international development, prompted an increase in the use of equity (and inequity) in gender and education policy discourses. Although the two terms—equality and equity—are not always clearly defined or differentiated, a concern for fairness is clear in most policy that is in the human rights camp (e.g., UNICEF, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam, and others). Both concepts are still usually seen as comparing men to women or boys to girls in educational opportunity and outcomes.

The concept of empowerment shifts our attention to lived experience and structural contexts that inform that experience. Empowerment has made its way into practice and policy, and also research and theory. It shifts our focus from equal or fair goals and intentions, to how women experience education and how it enables them to live better lives. Empowerment, though sometimes used generically to mean having confidence or a feeling of being empowered, has been more fully theorized in the gender and international development and the international development education worlds to get at structural bases of inequities, but not merely from comparing quantitative measures of progress and outcomes. Empowerment relates to how people can fully live their lives, ideally without gender-related restrictions. Stromquist, for example, argues that there are four dimensions to empowerment, namely:

the cognitive (critical understanding of one’s reality);

the psychological (feeling of self-esteem);

the political (awareness of power inequalities and the ability to organize and mobilize); and

the economic (capacity to generate independent income). (Stromquist, 2002, p. 23)

All four dimensions are necessary in order to be empowered, along with their occurrence at both individual and collective levels. Individual empowerment without empowered peers and communities limits individuals from being fully empowered. Others have added mobility as another type of empowerment—the ability to move about freely is key to manifesting the other forms of empowerment. The exercise of power is at the core of the concept of empowerment. Many gender scholars differentiate “power to” and “power with,” from “power over” (Rowlands, 1995), recognizing the first two as positive and the third as oppressive.

Empowerment is a process, not a static outcome. Context matters, as it defines constraints in people’s lives, gender norms, and the ways in which everyone is implicated in maintaining or changing gender norms—all of which relates to how power is used and negotiated. In 2020, the term “empowerment” is still used in vague ways or to mean one feels strong, however. Simplistic assumptions, such as that attending school means that girls are empowered, are heard, yet studies show this is not a given. For schooling to be empowering, the quality of instruction and the content of the curriculum, at the very least, must be looked at more closely, but also societal structures that limit women’s and girls’ capabilities related to economic, political, psychological, and cognitive liberation.


Intersectionality in the social sciences and legal studies argues that oppression is not merely derived from the separate forces related to race or gender or class (etc.), but from the convergence of these social positionings; therefore, to understand how people experience social forces, one must look at the intersection of multiple forms of oppression to see the complex processes that people experience (Crenshaw, 1991). Class (poverty) and gender are a common intersection evident in gender and education policy work, as much of this field is focused on education work in low-income countries. (Policy that focuses on both rarely evokes the concept of intersectionality, however). How poverty is conceptualized in policy varies, in part because of ideologies that drive institutional policy agendas. Class and gender are not sufficient when claiming an intersectional approach, however. The most recent work acknowledges gender identities and sexual orientation. UNICEF’s (2018) work in WASH instructs its field office staff to take into account difference, namely, transgender and nonbinary adolescents as well as those with disabilities. UNESCO (2016) recognizes homophobic and transphobic violence. Still, however, intersectionality only superficially informs the policy initiatives.

Although there is significant institutional work focused on particular groups—pastoral communities, religious minorities, indigenous groups and language minorities, and so on—it is less often that a fully intersectional approach in policy environments is seen, one that focuses on the intersection of multiple social categories to center the lived experiences at those intersections. Sharples (2018) discusses the challenges and offers suggestions that include getting the full picture of context, conducting power analyses, viewing oppression as political and structural (not individual), considering our own social positions and relationships, keeping complex and long-term change as a goal, and fully engaging with the perspectives of partner organizations and communities.

Academic analyses in the field more fully engage intersectionality (when that is their intention), particularly in qualitative studies. These often take the form of dissertations or ethnographic work based in a deep understanding of communities and contexts. Taking another approach, Robert and Yu (2018) analyzed how the concept of intersectionality has been taken up in Chinese and Latin American scholarship. In addition to insights on how particular studies engage the concept, they discuss (post)coloniality as an additional intersectional component that is important to consider. This latter dimension is critical in global policy work as much of the policy is focused on formerly colonized peoples.

Neoliberalism and Its Influences

The 1990s saw a shift in the comparative and international education field to focus on globalization as an influence in education policy, practice, and research. This work has continued to develop in complexity. One dimension of globalization—neoliberalism—is both prevalent in policy priorities (Klees et al., 2019) yet rarely named. Neoliberalism, briefly, relates to an economic and political agenda that prioritizes the development of a free (deregulated) market and free trade, and privatization, while reducing the role of the state in development (favoring the market over the state). Neoliberalism argues that a robust economy will take care of social problems (including education, housing, food sustainability, and health)—the benefits are expected to trickle down to the masses. Although critics see “trickle down” as a myth, this movement has brought to education an emphasis on accountability (measuring progress, with high stakes riding on the outcomes), privatization (e.g., low-fee private schools, vouchers, and the involvement of corporations and corporate philanthropies as actors in education), and so on. Being accountable (in a more general sense) and allowing for private initiatives are not necessarily problematic, but in many countries there has been an increase in the gap between the rich and poor, increased homelessness, and other social problems suggesting that a robust market at the top is not benefitting the masses in most societies—it benefits those at the top. In education, budgets are increasingly stretched, and policy priorities are increasingly influenced from the top down. Funding is increasingly expected to come from grants and the generosity of corporations, foundations, and others, while reducing the responsibility of the state (see Stromquist & Monkman, 2014). These trends are intertwined with the pressures that maintain priorities on measuring progress in ways that can, arguably, restrict how gender inequities are addressed.

Calls for increased attention to quality of education are constrained by the challenges in measuring progress related to quality and by the increasing importance of assessing progress relative to providing for education. Short funding cycles suggest that notable progress is expected in only three to five years, which is difficult to realize. Implementing organizations have to justify their existence though these assessments. And funders expect impact evaluations. Student achievement as measured by high-stakes testing can push students out of school, often because the quality of teaching or the curriculum is not adequate for what the tests assess. This often has gendered implications.

Some organizations do have longer funding cycles, mostly NGOs with privately donated funds, who also have more flexible expectations for showing progress. What can be done in 10 years, for example, with the luxury of time to develop initiatives that are valued by communities, is critical for meaningful and sustainable initiatives. In gender-related education programs, a long timeline is key because of the complex ways in which gender (as socially constructed) informs educational and life experience.


Challenges abound despite decades of efforts to increase gender equity through education, yet impressive progress has also been made. In the 1970s, data became disaggregated so researchers could see how men and women’s experiences were similar or different. In the 1980s, development policy promoted a market-based approach, later referred to as the Washington Consensus, which promoted privatization and deregulation. Gender was beginning to emerge within the development agencies, often as part of newly created gender units. At the same time academic research expanded to create a rich body of knowledge and theory on which to build momentum in demanding gender equity. Pressure on the World Bank and other development entities in the 1980s and 1990s to “put a human face” on development policy opened up space to focus on gender and education. This funneled some money back into social services including education and healthcare. Although other organizations were more progressive in incorporating a gender focus, the World Bank is key in that it has become the largest funder of education.

In 1995, the Women’s Conference in Beijing put gender on the development stage, and many in the international development education community took this up without hesitation. Researchers theorized empowerment, promoted participatory approaches in educational planning, and merged educational thinking with that in the gender and development field. Education policy work in the 1990s and early 2000s solidified justification to educate girls (Monkman & Hoffman, 2013), and now, in the 21st century, there can be seen more nuanced policy discourses that recognize GBV, quality issues in education, greater diversity that gets brings intersectional analysis closer, and even the naming of the social construction of gender and gender relations as key concerns. Several major organizations have developed robust gender frameworks for use in their work. And work is finally emerging on sexuality and sexual minorities (as marked by a forthcoming special issue of the Comparative Education Review). Both research and policy have become more nuanced, more fully developed, and more strategic in addressing gender concerns in education. However, there is still a long way to go.

Further Reading

  • Aikman, S., & Unterhalter, E. (Eds.). (2005). Beyond access: Transforming policy and practice for gender equality in education. Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
  • Chisamya, G., DeJaeghere, J., Kendall, N., & Khan, M. A. (2012). Gender and education for all: Progress and problems in achieving gender equity. International Journal of Educational Development, 32(6), 743–755.
  • Fennell, S., & Arnot, M. (Eds.). (2007). Gender education, and equality in a global context: Conceptual frameworks and policy perspectives. London, UK: Routledge.
  • Heward, C., & Bunwaree, S. (Eds.). (1999). Gender, education and development: Beyond access to empowerment. London, UK: Zed Books.
  • Kendall, N. (2007). Education for All meets political democratization: Free primary education and the neoliberalization of the Malawian school and state. Comparative Education Review, 51(3), 281–305.
  • Khurshid, A. (2016). Empowered to contest the terms of empowerment? Empowerment and development in a transnational women’s education project. Comparative Education Review, 60(4), 619–643.
  • Menashy, F. (2019). International aid to education: Power dynamics in an era of partnership. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Page, E., & Jha, J. (Eds.). (2009). Exploring the bias: Gender and stereotyping in secondary schools. London, UK: Commonwealth Secretariat.
  • Parkes, J. (Ed.). (2015). Gender violence in poverty contexts: The educational challenge. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Robert, S. A. (2015). Neoliberal education reform: Gendered notions in global and local contexts. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.
  • Ross, H., Shah, P. P., & Wang, L. (2011). Situating empowerment for millennial schoolgirls in Gujarat, India and Shaanxi, China. Feminist Formations, 23(3), 23–47.
  • Sayed, Y., & Ahmed, R. (2015). Education quality, and teaching and learning in the post‐2015 education agenda. International Journal of Educational Development, 40(C), 330–338.
  • Shah, P. P. (2016). Partnerships and appropriation: Translating discourses of access and empowerment in girls’ education in India. International Journal of Educational Development, 49(C), 11–21.
  • Stromquist, N., & Fischman, G. (2009). Introduction—from denouncing gender inequities to undoing gender in education: Practices and programmes toward change in the social relations of gender. International Review of Education, 55(463), 456–482.
  • Subrahmanian, R. (2005). Gender equality in education: Definitions and measurements. International Journal of Educational Development,25(4), 395–407.
  • Unterhalter, E. (Ed.). (2018). Measuring the unmeasurable in education. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
  • Vavrus, F. (2003). Desire and decline: Schooling amid crisis in Tanzania. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


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