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Why is the Gender Gap in Education Closing?

Date:23 November 2017
Author:Mariko J. Klasing and Petros Milionis
Mariko J. Klasing and Petros Milionis are assistant professors at the Faculty of Economics and Business.
Mariko J. Klasing and Petros Milionis are assistant professors at the Faculty of Economics and Business.

Historically women have had lower levels of education than men all around the world. But since the mid-20th century the educational attainment of women has grown at a quicker pace than that of men in most countries, leading to a gradual closing of the gender gap in education. This global trend is so striking that in most developed countries women now have on average higher levels of education than men. If this trend continues, this may soon be the case in many developing countries as well.  

These observations raise the question: why is the gender gap in education closing?

We studied this by examining data on educational attainment in terms of years of schooling for men and women going back to 1940 for a broad sample of developed and developing countries. (You can see the resulting paper online here.)

According to our study, there is one main reason that explains about 80% of the observed changes across countries: after World War II health improvements for women have been greater than for men, and these improvements have enabled female educational attainment.

To establish this finding we compared the changes in educational attainment with the observed changes in life expectancy at birth for males and females, a frequently used measure of the overall health environment in a country. Based on these data we documented that between 1940 and 1980 female life expectancy at birth increased by 16 percent more than male life expectancy. These differential changes in life expectancy have led to an increase in years of schooling for women by 10% more than men and have resulted in a substantial reduction in the education gender gap.

To verify that the observed changes in educational attainment across genders are indeed driven by the differential changes in life expectancy and not by other factors, we exploited a recently established fact in the medical literature. Recent medical studies have shown that the immune system of women is more responsive to vaccination than that of men. As a consequence of this biological difference, women around the world received the most benefits from 20th century medical advances in vaccine effectiveness.

In light of this evidence, we focus on improvements in life expectancy resulting from vaccines for major infectious diseases developed during the first half of the 20th century, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. These vaccines were introduced in most countries after World War II, following the global efforts coordinated by the United Nations and the World Health Organization to combat mortality from infectious diseases. Comparing the changes in educational attainment and life expectancy for men and women before and after the introduction of these vaccines, we provide evidence that the resulting improvements in life expectancy were greater for women than for men, and triggered relatively larger increases in female educational attainment than in male educational attainment.

Our study also considers whether the differential improvements in life expectancy between men and women had broader implications for economic development beyond the closing of the education gender gap. Looking at the evolution of income per capita over the same period, we observe that countries where women gained more in terms of life expectancy also experienced larger gains in income per capita. Overall these results suggest that policies targeted at improving female health, beyond promoting gender equality, can also foster economic development.

This blog post is based on a recently-released working paper by the authors titled ‘the International Epidemiological Transition and the Education Gender Gap.’ You can read the paper online here.