Worlds of Education

Credits: World Bank photo collection
Credits: World Bank photo collection

#WDR2018 Reality Check #7: “The Gender Dimension in the World Bank’s Perception”, by Nelly Stromquist

published 12 December 2017 updated 12 April 2018
written by:

With the production of a World Development Report focused on education, the World Bank makes a decisive claim to its authority in education policy. Given an introductory section acknowledging 119 “researchers and specialists across the world” who provided “feedback and suggestions” for the report (WDR 2018 hereafter), it would seem an intimidating task to examine the virtues and limitations of this extensive document. And yet, there is much room for improvement in this latest World Bank venture. From a gender perspective, nothing new is proposed.

Gender continues to be equated with sex, thus the emphasis on greater access to schooling by girls. There are 49 references to “girls” and 44 references to “gender,” yet there is no treatment of how notions of femininity and masculinity create differential power and access to resources in societies throughout the globe. Without a proper diagnosis we cannot offer effective solutions.

WDR 2018 presents data confirming what is well known:  Girls’ academic performance is impacted by economic conditions in the household, the gap in education between girls and boys becomes more pronounced as puberty is reached, and girls perform better than boys in reading in all countries but boys tend to do better in math and science.  The absence of a conceptual framework for understanding gender, leads the report to make bizarre observations such as that building “latrines for girls does not affect learning”  and “school feeding does not often affect learning” (World Development Report 2018, both citations on p. 148). Since there is no direct connection between support mechanisms of this nature and immediate knowledge acquisition, the causality here is questionable.

For WDR 2018, learning is a paramount objective of education. Who could disagree with that?  But serious concerns emerge when it becomes clear that learning is equated with performance in national standardized tests (and even global metrics) and when it is assumed that test data lead to unambiguous instructional strategies. Linked to such tests, the measurement of learning is limited to subjects that are usually tested:  reading and math.  By now, it is amply known that for an improvement in the social relations of gender, girls and boys need knowledge that will challenge the status quo.  With the growing recognition of the incidence of gender-related violence, issues relating to domestic and sexual violence at home, in the workplace, and at school must become part of the crucial knowledge to be acquired by students.  Educational authorities need to continue to remove gender stereotypes in the curricula and to turn schools into girl-friendly environments. The devaluation of women and femininities and, conversely, the overvaluing of men and hegemonic masculinities in social life as well as in school settings must be explicitly faced.  To combat these social practices requires knowledge concerning how women experience inequality in their social world (private and public) and how men experience multiple forms of advantage.  It also requires reflecting upon how citizens and policy makers could  challenge this situation.  These topics are not usually tested; nonetheless, they are essential elements of progressive schools.

Instead of focusing so much on measuring learning, efforts should be placed in making sure that learning occurs in the first place.  Lip service to the recognition of the importance of teachers is not enough.  Teachers—most of whom are women across the world—need to be given proper pedagogical and subject-matter training.  They also need to receive training in gender issues and human rights.  Many teachers in developing countries experience living conditions dangerously close to poverty. These persons cannot easily move from a survival mode to one of reflection about professional practices.  And with per student expenditures for primary and secondary education ranging from an average of $9,200/year in OECD countries (Institute of Education Sciences, 2017) to about $500/year in low-income countries and $1400/year in lower-middle income countries (UNESCO, 2015), what sense does it make to concentrate attention on learning rather than providing a minimum of essential infrastructural and pedagogical requisites?

My core point is not to bemoan the limitations of WDR 2018 but to take this opportunity to turn the situation around.  It is time that we—women and those men who would like to help reduce gender inequalities—appoint ourselves as change agents, without expecting male-dominated institutions—from governments to international financial institutions—to come to our assistance. It is my contention that women, even though they are not the majority of teacher union leaders, can make demands on their own organizations to increase their provision of professional development on gender issues, as these relate to education and to the rest of society in which they are embedded.


Institute of Education Sciences.  2017.  Education Expenditures per country. The Condition of Education. Washington DC:  Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

UNESCO. 2015.  Pricing the cost of reaching new targets by 2030. Education for All Global Monitoring Report Policy Paper 18.  Paris: UNESCO.

World Bank. 2017. Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. World Development Report 2018. Washington, DC: World Bank.

#WDR2018 Reality Check is a blog series organized by Education International.  The series brings together the voices of education experts and activists – researchers, teachers, unionists and civil society actors - from across the world in response to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realize Education’s Promise. The series will form the basis of a publication in advance of the WB Spring Meetings 2018. If you would like to contribute to the series, please get in touch with Jennifer at [email protected]. All views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of Education International.

Check out the previous post in the series by Prachi Srivastava: #WDR2018 Reality Check #6: A sceptic’s review

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.