Author: Rachel Marcus

2. Gender norms and access to education

Gender inequalities, sustained in part by discriminatory norms, undermine children’s access to education and their learning experiences, according to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report Gender Review 2018 (see also the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise). Most of the literature focuses on the impact on girls, but there is growing recognition that gender norms can also disadvantage boys in education, as noted by Barker et al. (2012).  

Recent data on trends in gender disparities in education and the role of gender norms in these disparities are captured in UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring reports. The data confirm that gender disparities in educational enrolment and outcomes vary markedly by region, socioeconomic group and age/ school stage. In many contexts, the poorest girls have education outcomes that lag behind those of their better-off peers. Here, we outline ways in which discriminatory gender norms affect educational enrolment and outcomes, highlighting key resources.  

Norms on the value of education for girls and boys 

Where families cannot afford to educate all their children, boys are often prioritised. A boy is seen as more likely to be able to get good jobs and support his parents in later life, while a girl is more often perceived as a future home-maker in her husband’s family, rather than supporting her own family. Such perceptions often shape family decisions about children’s education in low-income contexts. 

There is evidence that, as a result of economic pressures and demographic change, norms are beginning to change. As noted by Kabeer (2012) in the case of Bangladesh, it is becoming acceptable for parents to accept support in their old age from adult sons as well as daughters, who were formerly ‘lost’ to their husband’s families. Where norms are relaxing, or where economic opportunities for educated women mean that girls’ education is perceived as a good investment (see Jensen, 2010), there is some qualitative evidence that parents are making education decisions more on the basis of the potential of their individual children rather than simply their gender. Stipends or other cash transfers that reduce the costs of school attendance have also shifted perceptions of the relative costs and benefits associated with educating boys and girls, according to research by Jones et al. (2014) on early marriage in Hmong communities in Viet Nam. 

Norms around family reputation 

In societies where a girl’s reputation, or that of her family, depends on her modest behaviour and virginity until marriage, schooling – with its public mobility and unsupervised contact with adolescent boys – can represent a significant risk to that reputation. Where levels of adolescent pregnancy are high, parents may have valid concerns about girls who attend school having sexual relationships with boys, or being sexually exploited by teachers or other school staff, as noted by UNESCO’s 2015 policy paper on this issue. 

Norms around marriage costs

Specific perceptions of the impact of education on the marriage ‘market’ can skew beliefs on the level of education for girls. For example, the research by Jones et al. (2014) in Viet Nam found that many parents and young people believed that junior secondary education was optimal; providing enough knowledge and competencies for a healthy and productive life without raising girls’ expectations so high that they might rebel against a traditional farming lifestyles and prevailing gender relations within marriage. There is also a body of evidence that education can increase dowry costs and bride price (Amin and Huq, 2008; Ashraf et al., 2014), and that this affects perceptions of the relative value of investing in girls’ education or deciding upon marriage. Higher dowry costs reduce the incentive to invest in education, while higher bride prices can make education look like a better investment or can encourage parents to ‘cash in’ after girls have reached a certain threshold. 

Norms around gender divisions of labour 

Gender divisions of labour often burden girls with more domestic work and more tasks that interfere with their schooling, on girls, impeding their regular attendance at school and their learning, as this undermines their ability to do homework. Qualitative studies on Ethiopia, Nepal and Uganda from the Overseas Development Institute (Jones et al., Ghimire and Samuels, Watson et al., all 2015) highlight the detrimental effects of girls’ domestic workloads – effects confirmed by UNICEF’s 2016 report synthesising quantitative data on these workloads. Norms of masculinity that emphasise the role of men as breadwinners – combined with opportunities for adolescent boys to obtain manual labouring work – can put pressure on boys to drop out of school. This explains, in part, the recent gender disparities in favour of girls in parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and East Asia, as seen in the most recent UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, and shown in some studies from other regions, including Jyotsna et al. (2012).

Intersecting discriminatory norms affecting education

Gender norms do not operate in isolation – they are part of a web of other norms, beliefs and practices and are strongly influenced by the socio-economic context. Parents’ decisions about which children to educate, and children’s experiences in schools, reflect not only gender norms but also stereotypes and norms about different groups of children. For example:

Children from ethnic minorities

Stereotypes about marginalised groups, their behaviour and their capacity to learn are often gendered, as well as reflecting prejudices about those groups. As research by Bandyopadhyay and Subrahmanian (2008) shows, children from marginalised castes in India, often face discrimination and mistreatment, as do children from marginalised ethnic groups across many countries. Poverty and other practical constraints (such as classes in a language that is not their own) can also stop children from particular ethnic and linguistic groups accessing or doing well in school (see Marcus et al., 2017).   

Children with disabilities 

Children with disabilities face complex gendered perceptions of their capacities to learn, as well as negative perceptions of the value of their education. Girls with disabilities (particularly learning disabilities) are more likely to be excluded from schools than boys in most contexts. This reflects both gender norms and specific concerns around managing disabilities and perceptions of vulnerability. Valid fears about a girl’s safety can be heightened if she has physical disabilities and would struggle to repel or escape an attack, or a girl with hearing difficulties who may not hear an attacker’s approach, as noted by Lord et al. (2016). Conversely, in some contexts, girls with disabilities are seen as less likely to marry and to have greater need of an education to support themselves (Jones et al., 2018).

The lack of focus on creating inclusive schooling also has gender dimensions. While all children need clean, safe toilets at school, children with physical disabilities may need adaptations such as handles or rails, while girls with disabilities may need particular support with menstruation management. Recent reports have documented the absence of reliable, gender disaggregated data on the education of children with disabilities and more studies are exploring gendered experiences of disability and their impact on education, including the Still left behind report by Leonard Cheshire Disability and UNGEI, Wapling (2016) and the analysis by Jones et al. (2018) on adolescents with disabilities.   


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