UNITED NATIONS, March 20, 2014 (IPS) – – International Women’s Day and the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are overlooking a critical trend: while girls and women are making notable gains, boys and men are falling behind.
On most major measures, such as education, employment, income and health, women are moving forward and men are simply not keeping up.
Certainly noteworthy gender differences exist across regions and countries, especially when comparing developed and developing nations. Women’s progress towards equality continues to encounter resistance, especially among socially conservative sectors of society. Generally speaking, however, the standing of women and girls has been improved considerably worldwide and in some cases has even exceeded men and boys.
Women have more opportunities than ever before. In the past, wife, homemaker and mother were the sequence of traditional roles ascribed to women. Today, increasing numbers of women can pursue education, employment and careers as well as participate in business, politics, sports and culture in much the same way as men.
In the vital area of higher education, women have achieved an educational advantage over men. After centuries of male dominance, worldwide women now outnumber men in both university attendance and graduation.
In most countries with data women’s university enrollment and graduation rates exceed those of men. In some countries, such as Brazil, Canada, Poland, Sweden and the United States, about 60 percent of the university students are women, with the achievement gap accumulating over time. For instance, during the last 10 years two million more women than men graduated from college in the United States.
Also in developing countries as diverse as Argentina, Iran, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, women constitute the majority of university students. Among the world’s two largest populations, China and India, women are moving toward parity with men at universities, 48 and 42 percent, respectively.
At the secondary level, girls outperform boys with better grades, teacher assessments, college entrance exams and lower school dropout rates than boys. Consequently, some colleges have affirmative action policies for boys in order to achieve a gender balance.
Achieving educational gender equality requires special attention and increased efforts aimed at improving the education of boys and men as well as girls and women.
Even with an educational advantage, women continue to lag behind men in employment, income and occupational level. Such disparities may be a vestige of the past given that they decrease with increasing education.
With the passage of time women’s educational advantage may translate into less gender income inequality as many studies find that a college degree pays off in higher wages over a lifetime.
Moreover, in many developed countries the numbers of traditional jobs for men in construction and manufacturing are shrinking. In the U.S., for example, 78 percent of the jobs lost since 2007 were held by men, leaving one out of every five working age men out of work.
Encouraging signs of women’s career progress are evident in many countries. For example, in less than a generation the percent of women attending medical schools has steadily risen in many countries including the Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, reaching parity with men.
Women have also made modest gains in the political sphere as well, with increasing numbers elected and appointed to legislative, judicial, executive bodies and offices. The global average in national parliaments stands at about 22 percent, up from 11 percent in 1995. In some countries, such as Belgium, Cuba, Netherlands, Senegal, South Africa and Sweden, women account for 40 percent or more of the national legislatures.
Nevertheless, in order to facilitate gender equality in employment, occupation and income, it will be necessary to eliminate the “glass ceiling” as well as the “glass floor”. While the glass ceiling is an invisible barrier limiting women’s advancement to the highest levels in the workplace and corporate boardrooms, the glass floor is an invisible barrier limiting men’s entry into more traditional female occupations, such as nurses, secretaries and primary school teachers.
Although some progress has been made, occupations continue to be largely segregated by sex. While men dominate such fields as engineering, manufacturing, computer sciences, women are concentrated in less remunerative fields such as education, humanities, health and welfare. The challenge for policy makers, educators and parents is how to overcome these differences without limiting personal choice.
Women and men should have the freedom to select their field of study and pursue an occupation of their choosing. However, in order to achieve gender balances across major disciplines, professions and subsequent career advancements, both sexes will need to take the same coursework throughout the secondary level, including math, science and the humanities.
Much remains to be done to achieve gender equality. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the achievements of girls and women as well as the falling behind of boys and men.
It should be kept in mind that boys and girls are raised together within families, households and communities, not segregated into male and female micro-environments. The unfinished business in the 21st century to achieve full gender equality requires comprehensive policies and programmes aimed at addressing the rights, needs and well-being of girls and boys and women and men.
Joseph Chamie is a former director of the United Nations Population Division.