The Closing Gender Gap in Rural Education
Gender inequality is a severe issue in developing countries around the world. 132 million girls are denied education worldwide, while millions more face gender inequality in education. Present-day China now ranks among the wealthiest developed countries, and its economic development has bolstered education in both rural and urban areas. However, researchers observed extensive inequality in health, nutrition, and education between girls and boys in China just a few decades ago. The question researchers have to answer now is: does the gender gap still exist, and if so, why?
How the gender gap reversed
One study conducted in rural areas in Western China from 2016 declared the educational gender gap not only closed but reversed. After testing students in health, nutrition, cognition, educational performance, and non-cognitive outcomes, researchers reported that girls scored better than boys in five out of six measures of educational performance. This kind of performance is reflected in Hong Kong, Finland, and the Netherlands, where girls have higher levels of achievement in math and language, respectively.
However, one statistic refused to budge, as the gender gap in mental health persisted, with girls scoring 6.9% higher on the Mental Health Test, indicating increased levels of anxiety. The persistence of mental health disparities in developed countries is supported by many studies that report girls are much more likely to experience depression than boys.
Another study sought to specifically analyze the gender gap in math performance in rural China, which has been understudied in the past. Studies from the last 20 years surveying students in Shanghai and Beijing suggest the disappearance of a gender gap in urban China. However, in rural areas, researchers found evidence of a gender gap in math performance beginning in primary school and worsening in junior high school.
So why is this happening? Current data has complicated researchers’ search for an explanation. The theory that families unfairly favor funding boys’ education over girls is disproved by evidence of equal investment in daughters and sons regardless of family income levels. Another explanation may be that teachers disproportionately engage with male students over females, leading to performance gaps; however, this phenomenon has only been recorded in studies from other countries.
Regardless of the root cause of the lingering gender gap, the study concluded that the only way to eradicate gender inequality is to nip it in the bud early. Researchers urged the Chinese government to implement policies targeting primary school students that will address the disparity in math performance. Addressing the issue early on prevents the gap from widening in junior high.
In summary, studies show encouraging evidence that the gender gap in rural China is closing. However, there are still strides to be made in improving mental health and math performance for rural students. Not only should the Chinese government enact policies addressing these issues, but more research is also absolutely necessary to pinpoint the root causes of gender inequality in education.
Zhou, H., Mo, D., Zhou, C. et al. The gender gap among school children in poor rural areas of western China: evidence from a multi-province dataset. Int J Equity Health 15, 162 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12939-016-0442-5
Lu, Meichen, et al. The gender gap in math performance, self-concept, and anxiety: rural and urban China in an international context. Stanford REAP, January 2017 https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/312-the_gender_gap_in_math_performance_self-concept_and_anxiety-_rural_and_urban_china_in_an_international_context.pdf