2. Gender norms affecting education

Gender inequalities, sustained in part by discriminatory norms, have a critical, negative impact on children’s access to education and their learning experiences (see also here). The majority of literature focuses on the impacts on girls, but there is growing recognition that gender norms also contribute to boys’ disadvantage in education. Recent data on trends in gender disparities in education and the role of gender norms in these patterns are summarised in UNESCO Global Education Monitoring reports. Gender disparities in educational enrolment and outcomes vary notably by region, socioeconomic group and age/ school stage. In many contexts, these studies show that the education outcomes of the poorest girls are worse than their better-off peers. Here, we very briefly outline some of the ways that discriminatory gender norms affect educational enrolment and outcomes, highlighting key resources. 

Norms around the relative value of girls’ and boys’ education

Where families cannot afford to fully educate all their children, boys have often been prioritised. This is because their families perceive them as more likely to be able to get good jobs and support their parents in later life, while girls’ futures have more often been perceived as home-makers in their marital families rather than supporting their families of origin. These perceptions continue to affect family decisions about children’s education in low-income contexts.

There is some evidence that, as a result of economic pressures and demographic change, norms are beginning to change so that it is acceptable for parents to accept old age support both from adult sons and daughters, who were formerly ‘lost’ to their marital families. Where norms are relaxing in this manner, or where economic opportunities for educated women mean that girls’ education is perceived as a good investment, there is some qualitative evidence of parents making education decisions more on the basis of individual children’s aptitude and potential than simply on their gender. Stipends or other cash transfers that reduce the costs of school attendance have also shifted perceptions of the relative costs and potential gains associated with educating boys and girls.

Norms around marriageability and reputation

In societies where a girl’s reputation, or that of her family, depends on modest and chaste behaviour and on virginity until marriage, schooling – and the associated mobility in public and unsupervised contact with adolescent boys – can represent a significant risk to that reputation. Where levels of adolescent pregnancy are high, concerns about girls attending school can represent parents’ well-justified fears of their daughters engaging in sexual relationships with peers, or being sexually exploited by teachers or other school staff.

Norms related to marriage and dowry costs

In some cultural contexts there are specific, nuanced perceptions of the impact of different levels of education on the marriage ‘market’, and associated beliefs on what is the optimal level of education for girls. For example, ODI research in Hmong communities in rural Viet Nam found that many parents and young people believed that junior secondary education was optimal; it provided enough knowledge and competencies to be able to live a healthy and productive life, but tended not to raise girls’ expectations so high that they were unwilling to accept traditional farming lifestyles and prevailing gender relations within marriage. There is also a body of evidence on how education can affect demands for dowry and bride price, and how this affects perceptions of the relative value of investing in girls’ education or deciding upon marriage. 

Norms around gender divisions of labour

Gender divisions of labour that assign a greater domestic workload to girls are widely recognised as impeding girls’ regular attendance at school and their learning, as it undermines their ability to do homework. Click here and here for links to qualitative studies highlighting the detrimental effects of girls’ domestic workloads, and here for synthesised quantitative data on girls’ domestic work burdens. Norms of masculinity that emphasise the breadwinner role – combined with opportunities for adolescent boys to obtain manual labouring work – can lead to pressure on boys to drop out of school. This also partly explains the recent gender disparities in favour of girls in some parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia, also evidenced in some studies from other regions

Marcus, R. 2017 Education and gender norm change, ALIGN, London, UK