Education in times of crisis: Inspiring a new generation of gender equality advocates

04 - Quality Education
05 - Gender Equality

This new pandemic has impacted the lives of over 60% of the world’s student population. With the temporarily lockdown of schools and universities as an attempt to contain the spread of the COVID-19, classes at all educational levels have transitioned to online learning.

This critical but necessary measure to ensure learning throughout the crisis makes it easier for students to participate in online events featuring the participation of global leaders. That is the case of the University San Francisco of Quito, which has been organizing classes to students from different fields, such as law, social sciences and architecture, to raise awareness on important challenges of society, such as poverty, education, health, human rights and gender equality.

In this spirit, on 2 July, Professor Mateo Sáenz Hinojosa invited Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO’s Director for Gender Equality, to speak to 60 students about UNESCO’s actions to foster gender equality and women’s empowerment, particularly through education, political participation and leadership.

Brief History and Definition 

Gender equality has been a global priority for UNESCO since January 2008, but the work on this area has started much before, and it broke new ground when it started to also analyse the role of men in Gender Equality through the 1997 Expert Group Meeting on "Male Roles and Masculinities in the Perspective of a Culture of Peace" in Oslo, Norway, which led to the publication in 2000 of the book entitled Male roles, masculinities and violence: a culture of peace perspective.  

Since then, UNESCO has made an original and holistic contribution to the creation of an enabling environment for gender equality through coordinated actions in all its major programmes. Following the dual approach of gender mainstreaming and gender-specific programming, as outlined in its Priority Gender Equality Action Plan (2014-2021), UNESCO promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment from different and complementary angles, such as education, culture, information, and the sciences.

Gender is not synonymous to women, it is not about the biological differences between people, but rather the socially-constructed roles and responsibilities of women and men, it includes expectations about characteristics, aptitudes and expected behaviors of both women and men.

At UNESCO, we believe that gender equality means equal rights and opportunities, but also and very importantly, equal valuing of all genders.

Saniye Gülser Corat

Education & Gender Equality

With a vision firmly rooted in inclusion, quality and learning throughout life, UNESCO is the UN’s specialized agency on Education and has a recognized leadership in the area of Education and Gender Equality.

Although the common belief is that promoting gender equality means focusing on women and girls only, in some countries in particular in Latin America and the Caribbean, boys and young men can be at particular risk of early drop-out from school, for reasons ranging from a perception that young men should be earning money to support themselves and their families, to participation in gangs.

However, it is important to remember that gender gaps in education, despite progress in recent years, are most often at the expense of girls. Around 132 million girls – about 1 in 5 across the world – are out of school today, and 16 million girls will never set foot in a classroom. At the current pace of change, it will take over a century to close the gap.  Another alarming figure is that, among the 750 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women – a proportion that has not changed in the last two decades.

132 million

girls are out of school today

16 million

girls will never set foot in a classroom

500+ million

adult women without basic literacy skills

Girls’ and women’s unequal access to, and performance in, education is both a cause and a result of multiple factors, including chronic and systemic gender-based discrimination reproduced in the education system. Therefore, UNESCO works to improve the quality of learning processes and environment for girls and boys by addressing gender disparities and promoting equality throughout the education system.

UNESCO also plays a key role in overcoming gender disparities in access to, influence over, and use of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Today women account for only 30% of the world’s researchers, and even lower percentages at higher decision-making levels. In 2019, the report entitled I’d Blush if I Could, which looked at the lack of women in frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence, shared strategies on how gender-responsive education can help resetting gendered views of technology and ensuring equality for women and girls. At a moment when every sector is becoming a technology sector, narrowing digital gaps is becoming an absolute priority for policy-makers, educators and everyday citizens.

According to Ms Corat, “Gender equality in the education sector is more than just about parity in access; it is necessary to ensure that learners are acquiring the attitudes and competencies necessary for promoting gender equality in their everyday lives”.

Equipping girls and boys, women and men with the knowledge, values, attitudes and skills to tackle gender disparities is a precondition to building a sustainable future for all.


Politics & Leadership

With 51% of women at Director and above levels in December 2019,
UNESCO is among the highest-ranking UN agencies in terms of gender balance.

Gender inequality persists in leadership positions. According to the Women’s Power Index, 19 out of 193 countries have a woman head of state or government, and 4 out of 193 countries have at least 50% women in the national legislature.

However, women are not only globally underrepresented in politics in local governments, they have also been traditionally underrepresented at senior levels within the international organizations, including the United Nations. In 2016, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, pledged to reach gender parity in senior positions at the United Nations stressing that by the end of his mandate, “we should reach full gender parity at the Under-Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General levels, including special representatives and special envoys”.

UNESCO has been showing great results in this regard. In 2009, UNESCO had already achieved overall parity in the professional category. The number of women at Director and above positions rise from 23% in 2009 to 51% in December 2019. Positioning UNESCO among the highest-ranking agencies in this respect, as the average representation of women in the Professional category and above in the United Nations system is 45% (source: CEB/2019/HLCM/HR/17).

For Ms Corat, “women in leadership positions bring diversity of opinions, ambitions and thinking. if we don’t have representation of half of humanity, it is impossible to ensure gender equality”

In addition, women in leadership positions tend to favour the equitable redistribution of resources, and legislatures with a higher share of women on average tend to support health, education and social welfare spending at the expense of defence spending. Preliminary evidence also suggests that women leaders have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic much more efficiently. This is why UNESCO works to promote an enabling environment for women to become political leaders, in particular through gender transformative policies, and to call upon women leaders to be role models for future generations.