Despite growing public support for gender parity, and government initiatives to promote it in some African countries, inequalities in educational attainment remain a significant obstacle to women’s empowerment. The United Nations reports notable successes in increasing primary-school enrolment rates, from 52% in 1990 to 78% in 2012 in sub-Saharan Africa and from 80% to 99% in North Africa, but girls continue to be educated at lower rates than boys – particularly at secondary and tertiary levels (United Nations, 2014).
Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in 34 African countries confirm significant gains in educational attainment, with youth reporting higher levels than their elders. But although there is broad support for gender equality in education access, women’s attainment levels are lower than men’s across all age groups.
This disparity is most notable in post-secondary education, even among young Africans, which threatens to perpetuate existing inequalities in economic and political empowerment. As countries approach universal access to primary education, the development agenda has shifted toward an emphasis on higher education’s role in national development (Bloom, Canning, Chan, & Luca, 2014). Modern economies increasingly emphasise human capital (education and knowledge/skills), reflected in government investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in developed economies.
The persisting gender gap in higher education therefore threatens to maintain African women’s marginalisation in the global knowledge economy.