Why educating women is essential to a more equitable world
“Give me an educated mother,” said Napoleon “and I shall promise you the birth of a civilised, educated nation.” Noble words, yet there is a very long way to go before women around the world fulfil their educational potential for the good of society.
According to the United Nations, “Women and girls have less access to education and healthcare, too often lack economic autonomy and are under-represented in decision-making at all levels.” Less than two thirds of women globally are in paid employment compared to 93% of men. Of women who are in work, more than half do low paid, insecure jobs, while unpaid care and domestic responsibilities are still seen as a woman‘s role. For many, higher education remains out of reach.
Change in the global gender gap is painfully slow. Even before we take into account the impact of the pandemic on women’s lives and work, the World Economic Forum reported in 2020 that projecting current trends into the future, closing the gap will take in 99.5 years. The Economic Participation and Opportunity measure was even worse at 257 years. The report predicted, “None of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children.”
A better world through education
How can we change this? One answer - perhaps the most powerful solution of all - is to educate girls and women.
Research shows better educated women tend to be healthier, earn more, marry later, have fewer children and their children are healthier in their turn. In fact, a mother's education is the single most important factor in children's life outcomes. Educated women lift families, communities, and countries out of poverty. This is why the UN Sustainable Development Goals include ‘Gender Equality’ and ‘Quality Education for All". Both of these aims underpin progress in so many other aspects of society.
The life-changing power of women’s education is something I have been privileged to witness first hand for students from around the world who progress through Study Group pathway programmes, onto undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and into careers, which make a difference to the world.
I think of one of our alumnae Dalia, who now helps lead a national screening programme for women’s health in Saudi Arabia, making an important shift in the care for women in the country. She describes being inspired by her parents’ hard work and love of family, but also the opportunity to meet people from other countries and learn from different perspectives, which were at the heart of her education in the UK. She learned to value diversity and the chance to try different things, and advises other women to ‘be kind and have a goal in your life.’
But before other Dalias can apply to university, they must first have access to primarily and secondary education.
We’ve had a small insight into the challenges involved from the girls our company has supported since 2004 through the work of ‘Building Futures’, which our staff and students have continued to raise funds for in the face of a pandemic. Over that time, through the ‘Building Futures’ international development charity, we have worked on projects in Benin, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Niger, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, as well as on the impact of floods and climate change on education in Bangladesh. A key theme within this is ensuring education is open to girls as well as boys.
Our latest project is for girls in Ghana. Some of those students are looking beyond their immediate environment and hope to continue onto universities in their cities or even overseas. They are ambitious for their lives and communities. Some want to be doctors, others lawyers or scientists. They want to make a better world through education.
Women and education - a history of change
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is ‘Choose to Challenge’, and the history of women’s education has long been one of confronting barriers and creating opportunity.
Here in Britain, the first women weren’t admitted to University until 1868. Yet the ‘London Nine’ paved the way for generations of women who followed. Those pioneers became teachers and a lawyer important to the effort to secure votes for women.
In Oxford - where I was lucky enough to study Zoology in the late 1980s - women weren’t permitted to be members of the University until 1920. When the English novelist Virginia Woolf wanted permission to visit the library of an Oxford college where her brothers and male cousins had studied, she was only allowed to do so if accompanied by a male Don. Angered by this injustice, she wrote, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Today the world’s leading universities are no longer barred to women. The development of a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine at Oxford’s Jenner Institute is led by female scientist Professor Susan Gilbert, and many of the scientists in her lab are women from around the world. The University at last has its first woman Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson.
Women graduates across the world are making successful careers in business, law, medicine, architecture and engineering. The daughter of an international student from India has just taken up her office as the Vice-President of the United States. Glass ceilings are being broken from London to Sydney, and from Beijing to Delhi every day because of education.
As a mother of a daughter as well as sons who are truly fortunate to have received an excellent education, it is second nature for me to believe young women should have access to every opportunity open to young men. My own teacher parents enthusiastically supported education for myself and my sister and encouraged us to aim high.
As a leader of an organisation committee to international education, I am in my turn proud that our teachers do all in their power to offer the life-changing benefit of education to women from across the world. It is my hope that they will go on to create even more opportunities for others.
Emma Lancaster is taking part in a ‘Women in Leadership’ webinar, hosted by the Times Higher Education on Monday March 8 at 2 pm GMT. To find our more and register to attend, visit this website