A Women’s Day Challenge

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education and Skills

On a recent visit to New Zealand, I attended a memorial service for the 185 people who lost their lives when the earthquake of 22 February 2011 struck Christchurch. What I took away from that gathering was less the still-fresh grief but rather the sense of purpose that followed the tragedy. Kay Giles, chief executive of Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT), for example, who was already devoted to assisting young people – most of them boys – who had dropped out of the education system, put her passion and expertise to work by calling on people involved in apprenticeship programmes to help those who had lost their livelihoods to the earthquake. Stakeholders from local businesses, industry and education worked together quickly to develop long- and short-term training modules to put people back to work – sometimes in entirely different careers – as soon as possible.

I met, too, with New Zealand’s Education Minister, Hekia Parata, who is part Maori, and a vocal champion of indigenous culture and rights. She told me she is particularly concerned about Maori boys who are increasingly falling out of the education system and, in doing so, are dooming themselves to a very uncertain future.

On this International Women’s Day I’d like to be just a bit provocative and suggest that we start paying a little more attention to boys. Boys are getting lost in today’s life and we don’t really understand why. A recent study finds that boys’ behaviour costs them dearly in school marks (our next PISA in Focus, due out on 14 March, has a few other interesting things to say about how teachers award marks to girls and boys); and a school in Shanghai, China – which was the best-performing school system in the 2009 PISA survey  – has just introduced boys-only classes  in an effort to turn around the decline in boys’ performance in university entrance exams. (I was interested to read that some of the boys interviewed said that they felt shy answering teachers’ questions in front of girls. Didn’t many girls used to say that the presence of boys made them reluctant to participate in class?)

How do we make sure that our education systems – and labour markets – are equitable, and create good opportunities for both boys and girls?

We have done a lot for girls, and we see the positive results of this in everyday life. Girls are, on average, doing better in school than boys, and more women now graduate from university-level education than men. Of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement: just look at the salaries of women versus those of men. And I am irritated when I attend board meetings in the private sector and note that women are still a minority.

So we must not look at the great strides girls and women have made in recent decades and think that the battle is won. But I would also add: We don’t gain much if we gain on one side and lose on the other.

Am I focusing too much on boys on what is supposed to be the day we celebrate the girls and women of the world? I don’t think so. It’s all about empowerment: having equal opportunities to realise our individual potential. And that is something that should not be gender-specific.

OECD work on Gender: www.oecd.org/gender and www.oecd.org/gender/data for data on International Women’s Day
OECD Feature: Growing more equal
OECD Insights: Born a girl: bad karma?
For more information on PISA: www.oecd.org/pisa/
Photo credit: Boy with apple on head in classroom / Shutterstock

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