How to Get from Girls’ Education to Women’s Equality

Girls today are getting more education than ever before. But many girls are still being left behind. How can societies ensure they go the last mile when it comes to guaranteeing all girls have access to primary school, or the last hundred miles when it comes to quality education and access to secondary school?

Despite the many benefits that girls’ education offers and all the progress we have seen, the impact of girls' education on economic equality is still falling short. Why is that so, and what can education systems, partners, and societies do about it?

A new CGD report, “Girls’ Education and Women’s Equality: How to Get More out of the World’s Most Promising Investment”

Today we enthusiastically launch a new report that follows the line from the many documented benefits of education for girls, to the girls who are still missing out on education, on the reforms to both education systems and—most importantly—to societies at large if women are going to realize the full economic benefits of investments in girls’ education. The report builds on decades of important work on this topic and features contributions from many CGD researchers as well as case studies and background notes from many other scholars to deliver eight principal messages.

Eight takeaways for improving girls’ education and translating it into women’s economic empowerment

Here’s a whirlwind tour:

Message 1: Educational opportunities for girls have expanded, but girls still lag behind boys in many places.

Over the last 25 years, the number of girls getting through lower secondary school (usually for children aged 12-14) has jumped in every region, nearly doubling in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. But there’s still a long way to go: across low income countries, for example, girls are 5 to 10 percentage points less likely to be enrolled in high school than boys. In many countries, including Afghanistan, Benin, Haiti, and Papua New Guinea, fewer than one in five girls completes high school.

Message 2: Girls’ education delivers many benefits.

International organizations routinely make bold claims about the benefits of girls’ education. We examine the evidence underlying each of these claims and find that some claims have consistent, strong evidence behind them, like the positive impact of girls’ education on vaccination rates and on their children’s nutrition and survival. Others have weaker evidence, such as the impact on climate change or agricultural productivity. Education is a human right, and focusing on the many benefits that girls’ education actually delivers allows policymakers to identify complementary solutions for other policy challenges.

Message 3: We know a lot about how to get most girls into school and how to boost their learning.

A lot of existing research is dedicated to these two aims (see here, here, and here, just for a taste.) We show that there are well-tested interventions that expand and improve girls’ education, from eliminating fees, providing scholarships, and offering meals, to adding teachers’ aides to classrooms or helping teachers to improve their teaching through detailed guides and coaching, matched with effective student books. We know less about how to change social norms in favor of girls’ education, eliminate gender bias in classrooms, protect girls from violence, and support girls in their transition to adulthood.

Message 4: But many girls are still not benefiting.

Even though the world has a lot of evidence as to how to get girls into school and help them learn, many girls who face multiple challenges aren’t benefiting from education. In some countries, one in four girls don’t even complete primary school. These are often girls from poor households, usually in rural areas. For these girls (and there are many of them), simply cutting fees or improving the quality of teaching won’t be enough.

Message 5: Even where access to education for girls increases, it does not always translate into gender equality in the labor market.

The good news is that education often delivers economic returns for women. But the bad news is that those returns are inconsistent. Across countries, adjusting for differences in education only narrows the gender gap in employment slightly. Dozens of countries still lack any legislation outlawing gender discrimination in pay–and that’s not even considering enforcement of those laws. Girls’ education won’t pay off economically—and equitably—if societal laws and norms continue to act as barriers.

Message 6: Education systems can do a better job of paving the way for future equality.

Education systems need to help children learn, but sometimes they do so in ways that perpetuate gender biases and unequal social norms. These biases can be communicated through the behavior of teachers, gender representation among teachers, the examples in textbooks, the structure of exams, and the design of the curriculum. Education systems can take action to make schools safe for girls and to combat bias so that school environments can foster equality and empowerment for all students.

Message 7: Education systems alone cannot ensure gender equality.

No matter how much the teachers are trained, the textbooks are revised, and the curriculum is reformed, widespread discrimination will still dampen the benefit of girls’ education. A wide range of policy tools—from outlawing gender discrimination in access to credit and wages, restrictions on women working the same hours or in the same industries as men, to providing quotas in political leadership or subsidized childcare—can help education deliver on its promise of economic equality.

Message 8: Legal reform and political savvy can make changes that improve both education for girls and gender equality for women.

While passing legislation is not a guarantee in itself—enforcement is crucial!—enshrining both girls’ education and women’s rights in everything from constitutions to national education plans is key to achieving gender equality. Because the benefits of girls’ education are dependent on more than just getting girls through school, there is good reason to define the girls’ education much more broadly. The system-wide gender equity agenda is all part of any effective agenda for girls’ education.

But wait, there’s more!

Beyond the main messages, the report includes five spotlights on other key issues in girls’ education. These include original analysis of education project documents from education donors, demonstrating that girls’ education activities have often fallen short of addressing the unique challenges girls face in getting an education. We also examine other essential issues, such as the prevalence of gender-based violence, both at school and in the workplace, the role of migration, the data gaps in studying girls’ education, and the digital gender divide both in the classroom and beyond.


Girls’ education yields many benefits, and despite the fact that it’s a favorite investment for governments and donors alike to champion, many girls still are not achieving a full, quality education, and that education all too often fails to deliver equal economic opportunity. But there is hope! Drawing on the at-scale experiences of countries that have made gains in both girls’ education and women’s economic equality, societies, and the international community can help girls to get the most out of the world’s most promising investment.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.