The gender disparity in educational participation and achievement is not a new phenomenon, and it certainly is not unique to Cayman. This complex and often emotive issue is one that has been discussed, debated and researched across the globe for several decades.
Traditionally, girls have been at a disadvantage to accessing education in most parts of the world, and this continues even today. The recent headline of the 14-year-old Pakistani teenager, Malala Yusufzai, who was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls to be allowed to go to school, is a very real reminder that not all is equal when it comes to boys’ and girls’ access to education. From a global perspective, the gender gap in access to primary education participation actually favours boys. However, over the past 15 years, the World Bank reports that progress has been made in closing the gender gap in primary education with nearly 2/3 of all countries achieving gender equality in primary education.
In the Cayman Islands, the 2010 Census reported a higher percentage of females aged 15-24 attending school for both full-time and part-time study, and 18.3 per cent of females aged 15 years and older had passed no examinations compared to 21.5 per cent of males in the same age group. A nearly equal percentage of males and females had a secondary school diploma, but females in the Cayman Islands were more likely to have an Associate’s Degree or Bachelor’s Degree or higher. Males however were more likely to have a vocational or trade certificate or diploma.
Among persons aged 20 years or older in Cayman, both Caymanian females (23.2 per cent) and Non-Caymanian females (35.9 per cent) were more likely than their male counterparts to hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher in 2010. Nearly 20 per cent of Caymanian males and just under 30 per cent of Non- Caymanian males held a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
While females held higher educational qualifications in Cayman, this did not translate into higher income when compared to males with the same education levels. The 2010 Census data indicated that females, on average, earned less than males at every education level. The gender gap was the widest for those with a University degree with males earning on average CI$75,291 a year compared to their female counterparts earnings of CI$57,860.
Gender ideologies and education
The discussions of gender dynamics in education in the English-speaking Caribbean have undergone significant shifts. In recent years, educational retention, completion and attainment by boys in the Caribbean appears to be slipping while girls have improved in these areas. Gender ideology or ideas about what it means to be a boy or man are one of the root causes of gender disparities in relation to the issue of education.
Research in the United States has indicated that boys’ academic performance relative to girls has been dropping for decades. Boys are more likely than girls to earn poor grades, be held back a grade, have a learning disability, form a negative attitude toward school, get suspended or expelled, or drop out of school. Boys and men are just as capable as girls and women of succeeding in educational systems; however we have to examine and address at a macro level what it is that causes boys to retreat from the classroom and men to under participate in education systems.
Boys construct their identity by modeling behaviours that differentiate themselves from girls. Therefore as girls participate more in learning and excelling in school, it has become “taboo” for boys to do the same when they define their gender identity in opposition to girls. Boys then seemingly retreat to physical dominance- in the positive form of sports or in the negative form of bullying and physical violence- to prove their gender identity within the school environment.
Girls and women on the other hand see schooling and education as an investment or insurance for the future. Education benefits girls in a variety of way such as increased wages, reduced teen pregnancy and infant mortality, better health, delays in having children, and it is often a way for women to ensure that their children are also educated and provided for in a healthy way. Simply put educating girls and women has a positive multiplier effect, and it has been identified as one of the best ways in which to decrease poverty. When boys feel they need to live up to stereotypes that have been created by society about what it means to be a boy or man, there are important negative consequences such as academic underachievement, bullying, harassment, crime and violence. The issue of gender disparity in education is therefore not a “boy crisis” but a “masculinity crisis”.
Misconceptions about gender and education
Often times the discussions of gender gaps in education get watered down to a “battle of the sexes” misconception that pits boys against girls. However, this is not a “boys vs. girls” issue, but it is one that benefits from using a gender lens to examine the issues that have been identified. Another misconception is that the past and current efforts of improving girls’ education and women’s empowerment have resulted in boys being negatively impacted in the education system. The reality is that boys don’t face formal discrimination in school settings the way that girls have and continue to face in many societies around the world, and boys underachievement in schools certainly has not translated into the secondary position of men or gender under-privileging when it comes to income or participation in the workforce. In order to have the positive effects of gender equality on society, we must ensure that females and males are advancing together in education systems.
The gender gaps in education can have a negative impact on the workforce and economy. They also can affect marriage rates, the composition of families and society as a whole. Data from the United States indicates that college enrolment is higher than ever with women outnumbering men by four to three; the opposite was true 40 years ago. The problem is not that more women are attending college; the problem is that men aren’t attending college at the same rate.
If women choose not to marry at all rather than marrying men who have lower educational attainments or are likely to earn less than they do and if men are not interested in pursuing women who are more educated than them or have successful careers, then this can decrease the opportunity to create nuclear families with a mother and father present. This also increases the probability of single female-headed households and fatherless families, which can have a variety of negative impacts for the society as a whole.
Addressing the gender gaps in education is a complex matter. The problems that are created as a result of these gaps are often inter-related and the stereotypes about gender roles compound the negative effects of inequality in educational opportunities. Therefore the solutions require a multi-disciplinary approach from a wide range of the key stakeholders both inside and outside of education systems.