There is no one approach to gender equality in education either within nation states or across countries either in Europe or internationally, through the United Nations (UN) or its educational arm, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In the second half of the 20th century, in periods of social democracy many countries developed policy and legislative frameworks, around notions of sexual or gender equalities in education, training and employment. These various national frameworks included policies and legislation on equal educational and employment opportunities, equal pay and rights at work, including maternity and parental leaves, child care and other family-friendly policies.
In the UK, the policies enacted in the 1970s included the Equal Pay Act, 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA), 1975. Equality in education was not a central feature of this legislative framework, although the Equal Opportunities Commission, created by the SDA, did pursue several legal cases to outlaw sex discrimination in education in the late 20th century. Linked with the Race Relations Commission, created a year later, in 1976 through the Race Relations Act, questions of sex or race discrimination in education did move up the policy agenda. The Women’s National Commission set up in 1969, also argued for educational policies for women.
These policy and legislative frameworks were often as a result of campaigns for civic, ethnic or human rights, through social and liberation movements, including women’s liberation or second wave feminism. These international movements for human and social rights, including education, were often successful in gaining policy and legislative changes both within countries and internationally through the UN, UNESCO and in Europe through the EU.
For example, the UN developed its millennium development goals of gender equality for girls’ education – the aim of all girls across all countries of the world participating in primary education by 2000. This goal has not yet been achieved.
International legislative frameworks
While the legislative frameworks for gender equality in context of education vary across countries, there exists an international framework of declarations and conventions. The majority of governments around the world have made commitments to these laws by ratifying the conventions, which are legally binding documents implying the harmonisation of the countries’ domestic laws with the international laws.
The main principles and values upheld by the international instruments are based on what is commonly known as the bill of rights, namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). There is no one approach to gender equality in education either within nation states or across countries either in Europe or internationally, through the United Nations (UN) or its educational arm, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In the second half of the 20th century, in periods of social democracy many countries developed policy and legislative frameworks, around notions of sexual or gender equalities in education, training and employment. These various national frameworks included policies and legislation on equal educational and employment opportunities, equal pay and rights at work, including maternity and parental leaves, child care and other family-friendly policies.Non-discrimination based on sex, and, the right to education, are, two principles recognised in all three of these. Similarly, the Convention against Discrimination in Education (1968), in its very first article, notes that exclusion from education based on sex (amongst other categories) is a form of human rights discrimination.
However, the Convention neither makes a reference to women nor to women’s situation in the education sector. Such shortcomings have been addressed by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discriminations against Women (CEDAW), also as the Women’s Bill of Rights.
The CEDAW, a legally binding document, the second most ratified international document, with 185 countries party to it, represents over ninety percent of the United Nation’s membership. It asserts women’s legal right to all levels and forms of education. It also calls for women to have equal opportunity to receive scholarships and other study grants.
Gender equality in neoliberalism
In the 21st century, many of the gains made around gender equality in education, linked with civic, human and social rights, have begun to be contested, by governments committed to neo-liberal policies of individualism and consumerism through market forces. Policies and legislative frameworks on equalities have been modified and a weaker notion of gender equity, linked to social equity and diversities, has often been substituted for an equalities framework.
Given the rapid pace of change in the UK with respect to policies and the legislative framework we now provide regular policy reports on aspects of these changes, including on the Wolf Report on vocational education and the Browne Report on higher education and the 2010 education white paper.
Below we provide links and references that are relevant for pursing gender equality in education systems at the international level.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO): The GEO is responsible for equalities legislation and policy in the UK. GEO is responsible for the Government’s overall strategy and priorities on equality issues including gender equality in the Education sector. This link directs you to the gender and education specific pages.
The Women’s Budget Group: This is an independent UK organisation bringing together individuals from academia, non-governmental organisations and trades unions to promote gender equality through appropriate economic policy.
National Alliance of Women’s Organisations (NAWO): NAWO is an umbrella organisation for over 100 organisations and individuals based in England. All members are concerned to ensure women gain access to their human rights, and to make equality between women and men a reality.
David, M.E. (1980) The State, The Family and Education. London, Routledge: Authored by GEA’s first policy officer, this is one of the first feminist studies in the UK to explore the relationships between the State, defined as government, and educational institutions and families. It looks at the history of the development of educational policies in the changing political and social contexts, as well as changing roles of women in the family.
Dyhouse, C. (1995) No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities 1870-1939. London, UCL Press: This is a classic study of the development of women’s education at universities in the UK. It explores how discrimination against women was practised in subtle ways despite the developing opportunities for women to enter universities in the first half of the twentieth century.
Marshall, C. (ed) (1997) Feminist Critical Policy Analysis: A perspective from primary and secondary schooling. London, Falmer Press: This is a first class edited collection exploring the development of educational policies for schools in an international context; it includes evidence for the USA and UK.
Marshall, C. (1999) Researching the Margins: Feminist Critical Policy Analysis, Educational Policy, 13: 59-76: 4: In this essay, Marshall provides a liberal feminist analysis of how to understand policy developments for schools, based upon her US experience and expertise.
Marshall, C. (2000) Policy Mechanisms for Gender Equity in Australia, Educational Policy, 14: 357-384: In this essay, Marshall applies her critical feminist perspective to educational policy analysis of the Australian context and emerging policies for gender and education.
Morley, L. and David, M. (2009) Celebrations and Challenges: Gender in Higher Education Introduction, Higher Education Policy, 22, 1: Morley and David edited a special issue of the journal Higher Education Policy to look at the ways in which gender equity issues were entering higher education, and universities especially. They consider both the opportunities and obstacles to developments in gender equity in UK and global higher education.
Sagaria, M. A. D. (ed) (2007) Women, Universities, and Change: Gender Equality in the European Union and the United States. London, Palgrave Macmillan: Sagaria’s edited collection is of international essays about gender equity in higher education, with an array of fascinating critical essays from the USA, UK, and developing countries, discussing policies and practices.
Weiler, K. and David, M. (2008) The personal and political: second wave feminism and educational research: introduction. Discourse, Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 29, 4, 433-435: Weiler and David edited a special issue of the journal Discourse using international essays about the development of second wave feminism and its role in developing educational policies. This is their editorial introduction to the essays included, which give consideration to Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA. The main critique is of the androcentrism in policy developments in the so-called ‘global north’.
Page authors: Manilee Bagheritari and Miriam David
Updated: 15th January 2013