5. Key bodies of literature

Although explicit attention to education and gender norm change is relatively recent, there are several bodies of literature that have framed related issues a little differently (for example, in terms of social impacts of education or education and empowerment). Here, we highlight some key sources before outlining studies that delve into the processes of gender norm change in more depth. 

Social impacts of girls’ education

A huge and long-standing body of literature based on large-scale statistical evidence highlights the social impacts of girls’ education, such as demographic change, health improvements, economic growth and reduced poverty. These impacts often reflect changes in gender norms and wider social norms as well as individual and collective empowerment arising from education, but the pathways to change are not discussed in any depth. Good overviews include Sperling and Winthrop (2015), King and Winthrop (2015), UNESCO’s (2013) set of infographics ‘Education Transforms Lives’, and Chaaban and Cunningham’s (2011) analysis of the economic gains from investing in girls’ education.

Education and empowerment

A second set of studies focuses on the relationship between education and various dimensions of empowerment, such as developing self-confidence and skills. Key conceptual sources include Murphy-Graham and Lloyd (2015) and Stromquist (2006). Marcus and Page (2016) synthesise evidence on the empowering impacts of girls’ education, focusing on self-confidence, labour market impacts, and voice, while Sperling and Winthrop (2015) highlight evidence on the impact of girls’ education on voice and agency and political engagement. Analysis of demographic and health survey (DHS) data from the mid-2000s shows how – within the overall trend of education contributing to women’s empowerment – these patterns are nuanced and can be complicated by factors such as family structures. Studies of women’s empowerment processes that take a long historical view highlight the rise in the proportion of girls attending school and the growth in economic opportunities for women with secondary education as key drivers of change in gender norms (see also here). 

Part of this literature explores the impacts of education on attitudes and norms about aspects of gender equality. It makes substantial use of statistical data, both primary and secondary, to illuminate the role of education and of other factors in attitude and norm change. Good examples include the World Bank’s On Norms and Agency, which draws on primary research in 20 countries. It highlights education as a key driver of shifting gender norms (or of norms becoming less strict), as does Kabeer’s (2012) analysis of evidence on the key forces underpinning women’s economic empowerment, and Seguino’s (2007) analysis of data from the World Values Survey. Studies focused on particular issues (such as UNICEF’s FGM/C: A Statistical Analysis) also highlight how education contributes to changing norms and practices.

While there is strong evidence for the transformative effects of education, there is no automatic link between education, individual empowerment and social transformation. Across many contexts, norm-based barriers continue to constrain women’s economic participation, mobility and decision-making power. The processes by which education contributes to empowerment and norm change have received much less attention. The next section highlights some of the mainly qualitative studies that have explored these routes and processes. 


Are there thresholds for the impacts of education on gender norms?

In answer to this question, the emerging consensus from the literature is ‘yes’. Attending at least some years of secondary education seems to have a critical effect on gender norm change. This is the conclusion of the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES) in India, Rwanda, Brazil, Chile, Croatia and Mexico, while analyses of education, women’s work and decision-making power in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh reached similar conclusions. Qualitative evidence from India sets the threshold a little lower. Arnot et al.’s (2012) study for example, suggests that around five years of education is the minimum for changes in self-confidence and changes in how young married women are treated by their husbands and in-laws. Apart from IMAGES, few studies from other parts of the world have explored this issue. 

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