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AD32: Persisting education disparities threaten to exclude women from the global knowledge economy

Rorisang Lekalake 3 Jun 2015
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Key findings
  • Support for equal opportunity: Two-thirds of citizens in 34 African countries say that if funds are limited, families should prioritise educating the child with the greatest ability 2 to learn, regardless of gender. Only 15% indicate an explicit preference for educating boys rather than girls.
  • Gains in educational attainment: More than three-fourths (77%) of Africans have at least a primary education, and the proportions of young Africans with secondary and tertiary education are at least double those of their elders above age 50.
  • Persistent gaps: Despite these gains, women are more likely to have lower levels of education than men. The gender gap in post-secondary educational attainment is prevalent throughout the continent and consistent across all age groups. There are, however, large differences between countries, ranging from no gap in Cape Verde to a 15-percentage-point gap in Egypt.

Despite growing public support for gender parity, and government initiatives to promote it in some African countries, inequalities in educational attainment remain a significant obstacle to women’s empowerment. The United Nations reports notable successes in increasing primary-school enrolment rates, from 52% in 1990 to 78% in 2012 in sub-Saharan Africa and from 80% to 99% in North Africa, but girls continue to be educated at lower rates than boys – particularly at secondary and tertiary levels (United Nations, 2014).

Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in 34 African countries confirm significant gains in educational attainment, with youth reporting higher levels than their elders. But although there is broad support for gender equality in education access, women’s attainment levels are lower than men’s across all age groups.

This disparity is most notable in post-secondary education, even among young Africans, which threatens to perpetuate existing inequalities in economic and political empowerment. As countries approach universal access to primary education, the development agenda has shifted toward an emphasis on higher education’s role in national development (Bloom, Canning, Chan, & Luca, 2014). Modern economies increasingly emphasise human capital (education and knowledge/skills), reflected in government investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in developed economies.

The persisting gender gap in higher education therefore threatens to maintain African women’s marginalisation in the global knowledge economy.

Rorisang Lekalake

Rorisang Lekalake is Afrobarometer assistant project manager for Southern Africa, based at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town,