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Women’s role in education

The media recently raised issues related to women in general. There are certainly reasons to celebrate the achie­vements and opportunities. However, let’s not forget the basic struggles in many countries, some close to home and still embarking on such a journey, and for those women in developing countries or in rural areas where the focus is primarily on sustaining the family from one day to the next. It is a long road ahead but it will not be ventured in isolation, as the UN Women has committed to “empowering rural women” where gender disparity and exclusion are more pronounced.

... a forward-looking education system is needed... that removes preconceived gender roles or bias
- Charmaine Hogan

There is a common thread in advancing society to the benefit of both men and women – education. Why are women so important to education?

In the workplace, in learning institutions or in public life, a mix of women and men allows for differing perspectives to be put forth and for diverse ideas to flourish.

No less important, in the home, women do bear responsibility for the boys and girls of tomorrow’s society, for their education and for instilling the values of equal treatment in and outside the home.

Whether in developed or developing countries, in urban or in rural lifestyles, ultimately an educated woman serves a better and more equal society, with a ripple effect positively impacting the future. Yet, there are countries where access to (higher) education for women is limited to inferior curricula, rooted in gender stereotypes.

In developed countries, education is more of a given. However, family-work balance is still not that easy to attain for a number of women and this is where the digital era should pay off.

There is evidence that the structure of University courses and the work environment systems may derail women from pursuing certain courses or subject areas.

A recent article in the Financial Times reflected on the minority of women on MBA courses, stating that traditional explanations have pointed to the desire to start a family but that similar courses focusing on sustainability or social enterprise are attracting more women.

Women and men, as the case may be, should have the opportunity to take up an offer to work from home and independent of the status in the workplace.

In the same vein, when it comes to education, the availability of distance learning courses and of online library facilities is important.

There is nothing wrong in women seeking a particular course choice because they would like to balance with family commitments down the line. As flexible working hours and working from the home become more possible, the possibilities for women to take-up or resume studying or vocational training and balance with family/work life should also evolve. These are opportunities that will mirror society in a more balanced manner and reflect an evolving society as both genders become more present in diverse aspects of it.

An education system needs to allow for all women to take-up or to resume studying. It needs to be widely accessible and, therefore, some modifications are much needed, such as childcare possibilities, which are accessible to all.

Distance learning should be seen as enabling choice over the studies selected as much as it should be a reflection of the changing of traditional forms of education.

The flexibility of learning opportunities through distance education does away with time and location barriers that can otherwise be obstacles for some women.

Access to distance learning boosts the number of women seeking to further or resume their education, which could have been interrupted because of family commitments.

Of course, this also presupposes the availability of the computer in the home. In Malta, about 78 per cent of individuals aged between 16 and 74 have access to the internet from home, although this percentage may encompass a high number of those aged up to 24 and does not detail the type of access it is used for. Regardless, focus on ensuring internet availability for all, and in schools, should continue to be a priority.

In terms of facilitating education opportunities for women, community-related initiatives can be possible. Local councils can improve on their contribution to their community for education.

They can increasingly offer learning opportunities from basic literacy, to research or information gathering guidance (including for those parents who may need this for helping their children), to providing computer and internet usage.

There is a need for information gathering guidance because children may need to be guided to research or gather information for school-related projects and not all parents have those skills or knowledge, whether or not they are online.

In developing countries, education has definitely been paramount in empowering women. From basic education to entrepreneurial skills, to improved health and to facilitating more women in public life, education is the key factor. Education has not only aided the elevation of women’s status, it has also boosted confidence in decision-taking, though there is still progress to be made in boosting the latter.

In most OECD countries, it is now the case that young women complete upper secondary education at a par with young men. The number of women graduating in vocational programmes has also increased.

The education gap between men and women is narrowing, with countries like Denmark, Portugal and Spain showing higher secondary level graduation rates among young women, exceeding the rates of young men by about 10 per cent.

While in Germany, for example, graduation rates are shown to remain higher among men, in countries like Austria, Italy and Slovenia young women graduates outnumber the men.

The OECD study does point out however that more education does not translate into a narrower gender-related pay gap, which it indicates as being larger among those with a tertiary education.

In Malta, despite a slightly higher uptake of females in post-secondary education than men, the participation of women in employment is lower, which remains reflective of cultural and institutional characteristics.

In seeking to consistently improve the economy, an education system should be an intelligent moving target. The European Commission report on education and training for a smart, sustainable and inclusive Europe may well conclude on the need to improve the skill base in the labour force.

A priori, a forward-looking education system is needed, one that generates practical, inquisitive and creative thinking and one that removes preconceived gender roles or bias, whether at home or in the workplace. Education which enables all women to guide and educate children. Human resources are the country’s basic and important economic source and this is to be nurtured further.

In sum, education is what takes us forward in a sustainable manner. It plays a pivotal role in contributing to equal opportunities in the political, social and economic sphere and a basis for communities to thrive.

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