Girls' education

Gender gap in secondary education: Domestic chores the largest contributor, says study

Only 63% of girls who do two hours of housework a day are likely to finish school compared to 84% boys.

The engagement of children, especially girls, in housework is “the single largest contributor to the gender gap” in secondary education (Classes 9 and 10), according to a study released last month.

The study, by the India arm of Young Lives, an international research project studying childhood poverty, found that 358 boys (76.8%) and 322 girls (66.3%) of the survey sample completed secondary education successfully, pointing to a gender gap of over 10 percentage points. Renu Singh, country director for Young Lives India, and study co-author Protap Mukherjee mapped the number of children who finished senior school against a range of variables outside schooling that included caste, wealth, birth order, mother’s education, hours of work and early reading skills. They then quantified the contribution of each of these factors to the “persisting gender gap”. At 36% (of what could be quantified), hours spent on domestic chores at age 12 emerged the biggest cause.

The paper’s title, “Whatever she may study, she can’t escape from washing dishes: Gender inequity in secondary education – evidence from a longitudinal study in India”, was drawn from a statement made by a parent, one of the study’s respondents. It was published online in Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education last month.

While being made to do domestic chores adversely affects the education prospects of both boys and girls, the likelihood of girls not finishing secondary school is significantly higher. For girls who do two hours of housework on a regular day, the “predictive probability” of finishing Class 10 is 63%. For boys, it is 84%.

“It is the biggest factor for girls and no one talks about it,” said Singh. “Twelve is really young and as girls grow older, the pressures intensify.”

In the face of such statistics, the study recommends that an amendment in the child labour law that allows children to work in “family enterprises” outside of school hours be reconsidered. The paper reads:

“Given that hours spent on household chores for the girl child appears to be the biggest contributor for the gender gap, it is important to reconsider the recent amendment [in 2016] to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, which allows children up to the age of 14 years to work in family enterprises and farm lands after school hours and on holidays. Long hours of domestic chores at age 12 clearly impedes girls from continuing into secondary education and households must be sensitised to provide girls the time and space to study.”

Singh added that the amended law is also silent on the number of work hours and conditions.

Among other factors, the study found that mother’s education, paid work at age 12 and reading skills at age eight also contribute significantly to the gender gap – more so than caste or poverty.

Studied over years

Since 2002, the Young Lives project has been tracking the lives of 3,000 children. That year, they picked two groups, one of eight-year-olds and the other of one-year-olds, from poor families in undivided Andhra Pradesh.

For the gender gap study, the researchers analysed the data of the older set of children (those who were eight in 2002). This group originally had 1,003 children but by 2013, when they were 19 years old, there were 952 left – 466 boys and 486 girls. Quantitative data was collected in four rounds in 2002, 2005, 2009 and 2013. And qualitative research with a sample of 48 children was conducted in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2014.

According to Singh, a quantitative analysis cannot explain everything. In fact, only 30.8% of the gender gap has been explained and attributed to specific factors through statistical analysis. The rest are “unexplained contributory factors” that the paper suggests could include distance between school and home, general discrimination. The mixed-method paper has captured some of these in the qualitative section. For instance, one respondent revealed that parents married their daughters off early for fear that “they may commit mistakes after they attain puberty”.

Fewer demands on boys

According to the survey, 72.7% of boys who spent two hours on household work every day completed secondary school compared to 55% of girls – a gap of 17.7 percentage points. And, just 40% of boys and 34% of girls who worked for three hours or more completed Class 10.

The study advises caution while reading the data. The number of boys made to do housework for more than three hours a day was just five. With a sample that small, the 40% who complete school is at best a qualified figure.

However, the numbers do reveal a different reality. “The demand made on boys is much less,” explained Singh. “The number of girls engaged in chores is higher. Work is gendered and gender socialisation starts very early. Clear gender roles are defined even at age eight or nine.” Fifty-three girls reported that they worked for three hours or more at home in a day. And 129 girls said they worked for two hours, nearly twice the number of boys (66).

On the other hand, more boys are engaged in paid work, which too has a negative impact on education. “The gender differential is also larger amongst children who were engaged in paid work at age 12... as compared to those who did not do any paid work at that age,” said the study. It accounts for 10% of the explained gender gap but affects boys more.

Mother’s education

The difference in the percentage of boys and girls finishing secondary school was largest for those with mothers who had received primary education, followed by those whose mothers had no formal education. However, a gap existed even where mothers had completed secondary education or studied further. Singh and Mukherjee found the overall contribution of mother’s education to the gender gap to be 2.6%.

The education of the mother rather than of the father has a greater impact on a child's education.
The education of the mother rather than of the father has a greater impact on a child's education.

While mother’s education is a significant factor, the likelihood of children completing secondary education depends also on their own gender. So, boys with mothers who have studied beyond secondary school “showed the highest predicted probability” – 96% – of finishing secondary school compared to girls (85%). “It is… important to note that given a similar mothers’ level of education, the predicted probability of completing secondary schooling remained higher among boys than girls,” observed the paper’s authors.

Other factors

Among other factors contributing to the gender gap, early reading skills accounted for 4.7%.

The children were tested on reading ability at age eight.
The children were tested on reading ability at age eight. "Early literacy... has lasting long-term effects on... learning and academic development," says the study.

Once again, the school completion percentages varied widely for boys and girls even though they displayed similar reading skills at eight. Of the children who were poor readers in primary school, 64% boys and 52% girls ultimately completed secondary education – a difference of 11.9 percentage points. Of the ones with excellent skills, 82.9% boys and 75% girls went on to finish Class 10, a gap of 7.9 percentage points.

The order of a child’s birth is also key, contributing 2% to the gender gap but affecting boys more. Of the children surveyed, first-borns – both girls and boys – fared the best when it came to completing school.

Birth order and caste have a
Birth order and caste have a "profound impact" on educational outcomes, says the study. But caste contributes less to the gender gap than work.

But even in their case, there was a gap of 11.5 percentage points. However, the gap was widest in the case of children who were third in the order of birth (that is, those with two older siblings) at 16.1 percentage points.

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