Accountability for gender equality in education

Credit: Arete / Ivan Armando Flores / UNESCO

Accountability for gender equality in education

Although almost all countries have committed through international treaties and national legislation to ensuring gender equality, this review has shown that the equality principle is frequently violated around the world. To take action to correct the problem, it is important to determine who is responsible for achieving equality in education, and to expect those responsible to provide an account of how they fulfil their responsibilities.

Achieving gender equality in education involves complex processes and the efforts of many actors. Accountability can help ensure all are functioning as they should. Accountability is a process that helps individuals or institutions meet responsibilities and reach goals. For the purposes of this review, it can be understood as having three main elements: firstly, the actor must have clearly defined responsibilities; secondly, the actor must have an obligation to provide an account of how responsibilities have been met; and thirdly, there must be a legal, political, social or moral justification for the obligation to account.

How responsibilities are defined and assigned changes depending on how gender is conceptualized. Three ways of thinking about gender inequality, each with a progressively broader perspective, offer different implications for the nature, focus and limits of accountability (Unterhalter et al., 2018) (Figure 13):

  • The narrowest and most descriptive level focuses on examining responsibilities for ensuring gender parity in education participation and learning outcomes, setting aside questions of power dynamics that drive gender inequality.
  • The next level, from a more analytical perspective, seeks to expose and question the relationships and processes, associated with the exercise of power, that lead to gender inequality.
  • The broadest level concerns the normative aspirations regarding justice or equality in society beyond education alone.

FIGURE 13: Different conceptualizations of gender have different implications for accountability

All three approaches have value, and the differences in conceptualization should be embraced. An understanding of all levels is necessary to challenge stereotypes, pedagogical processes and education outcomes and to understand whether an education system supports a rights agenda or is complicit in undermining it.

For example, government is a responsible actor in education provision. At the narrowest level, government’s responsibility can be defined in terms of ensuring gender parity in participation rates, financing allocations and representation in decision-making bodies. Here, accountability mechanisms should focus on obtaining disaggregated data to monitor disparities and support affirmative action programmes to reach parity. At the next level, government is responsible and should be held accountable for defining the education policy-making processes in which gender inequality is rooted. Finally, at the highest level, government is responsible for tracking how key policies affect the equal enjoyment of rights in the long term. Accountability mechanisms here require qualitative evidence documenting the intersection of gender and power.

Ensuring gender equality in education is a collective enterprise in which all actors – not just government – must work together to meet their responsibilities. For example, schools and teachers do not work in isolation; they depend on the actions of others, from government decisions to social influences, to fulfil their responsibilities for gender equality. This interdependence can limit the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms targeted at single individual or institutional actors for achieving gender equality in education.

Even so, responsibilities linked to particular individuals or institutions can be identified, and those responsible can be expected to provide an account of their actions, even if problems and solutions will differ by context. This review discusses a range of accountability tools in various contexts and examines how they have or have not motivated actors to shift their behaviour towards achieving gender equality in education (Table 6).

TABLE 6: Approaches to accountability for gender equality in education

For example, in democratic systems, voting enables all citizens to exercise their power to hold politicians to account, including those responsible for education and gender equality, although admittedly in some contexts political expedience can also militate against the promotion of gender equality objectives. Education actors can hold each other to account by invoking laws and regulations. Mechanisms can range from the government ensuring that rules are followed internally within various levels and bodies to independent institutions scrutinizing gender parity in pay and allowances. Formal or, more often, informal codes of conduct form the foundation of social and professional education accountability; these codes require individuals to respect norms of responsibility accepted by their communities and peers. While mechanisms linked to performance are increasingly common for education outcomes related to test scores, they have yet to be used systematically to ensure compliance with gender equality targets.

Some actors may demand accountability through different approaches. For example, the international community can apply legal tools when it puts in motion the monitoring mechanisms of a legally binding treaty, performance tools when it withholds external financial assistance from a country due to its poor track record in gender equality, or social tools when it openly criticizes discriminatory policies.

There is a wide range of possible approaches to accountability, and countries vary enormously in the extent to which they employ them. In some countries, a serious lack of checks and balances is symptomatic of neglect in the exercise of government or professional duty. Limited accountability mechanisms have been identified as the ‘main barrier to effective gender mainstreaming’ in OECD countries (OECD, 2014). In other countries, accountability mechanisms for gender equality in education are becoming more embedded. However, evidence for the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms for gender equality in education is mixed. Some countries achieve education goals without explicit emphasis on accountability mechanisms.

In other countries, accountability mechanisms have promoted a renewed focus on what matters and have prevented violations. This part of the review looks at evidence on the mechanisms in place to hold to account key actors entrusted with ensuring gender equality in education. It consists of four sections. The first section reviews how country responsibilities for gender equality in education are defined at the global level and how they are enforced. The second section focuses on governments’ legal obligations to create an education plan that is non-discriminatory.

The last two sections examine the responsibilities of key education actors for ensuring gender equality in access to school and providing gender equality through school.