Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

This is how Latin American women came to be more educated than men

Latin America and the Caribbean is second in the world for gender parity in higher education.

Latin America and the Caribbean is second in the world for gender parity in higher education. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Andrea Willige
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • More than 6 out of 10 women in Latin America and the Caribbean go to college today compared to less than half of men.
  • That’s a substantial increase from 1970 when only 5% of women were educated beyond secondary school.
  • Educational investment is critical, but there also needs to be a focus on other aspects of building gender equity, including opportunities for women in the labour market.

Today, more than 6 out of 10 women in Latin America and the Caribbean go to college, while less than half of men do. Look at the same statistics for 1970, and only 5% of women made it beyond second-level schooling. This is according to Latinometrics’ analysis of World Bank data and represents significant progress for a region largely made up of emerging and developing economies.

A graph showing that women in Latin America are now more educated than men.
Women’s education in Latin America and the Caribbean has developed substantially over the past 50 years. Image: Latinometrics

Transforming education for women in Latin America

According to UNESCO, Latin America and the Caribbean is second in the world for gender parity in higher education, after Oceania (the collective name for the Pacific Ocean islands, including Australia and New Zealand). The region’s gender gap in higher education began to inverse in 1993 – only a year after the European Union and eight years before the same trend emerged on a global scale.

Panama was the first country to turn the education balance around for women, as far back as 1973. Uruguay followed in 1979, Argentina in 1989 and Mexico as recently as 2016, according to Latinometrics.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022 noted high levels of gender parity in education in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 18 countries having closed their gender gap in tertiary education. However, it also pointed out that other countries in the region, including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have low enrolment rates for both sexes compared to some of their neighbours.

Latin America and the Caribbean rank second in the world for gender parity in tertiary education, after Oceania.
Latin America and the Caribbean rank second in the world for gender parity in tertiary education, after Oceania. Image: UNESCO.

Investing in women’s education pays

It is well documented that investing in women’s education pays off. As Latinometrics points out, it has been proven to reduce economic inequality and drive more sustainable development. And societies with more educated women tend to have lower levels of violence and are more likely to be democratically governed, it says.

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When the World Economic Forum’s Catalysing Education 4.0 looked at the potential of educational investment, it calculated that investing in education could add $2.54 trillion to the global economy. This included reimagining education systems to become more inclusive, focusing on teaching the skills needed to succeed in a digitally transformed world, and using innovative technologies and techniques to increase reach.

Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions that stands to benefit greatly from such investments. For example, improving collaborative problem-solving skills – a measure used by the OECD’s PISA education assessment – could result in an additional $145 billion in GDP for Brazil alone. Peru, Colombia and Mexico were not far behind, the Forum noted.

Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions that would benefit substantially from an additional year of schooling.
Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the regions that would benefit substantially from an additional year of schooling. Image: World Economic Forum.

Uncertain payoffs for women’s education need to be addressed

Many women and girls in low- and middle-income countries are still being failed by the world’s education system. This is despite evidence for the benefits of educational investment and supporting girls’ access to education, according to a 2022 report from the Center for Global Development. It also found that while education has the potential to increase women’s earnings and labour force participation, the returns are inconsistent.

A bar chart showing that middle-income countries report more data on girls' education than low-income countries.
Girls’ enrolment and participation drops off from primary to tertiary education in low- and middle-income countries. Image: Center for Global Development.

The report advocates for coalitions between government, civil society and other stakeholders to build gender equity rather than focus on women’s education in isolation.

Similarly, Latinometrics underlines that with more women pursuing college-level education in Latin America and the Caribbean, the labour markets must also be ready for them. This means welcoming the skills women bring and offering flexibility to their needs.

An education is a human right, and it’s up to all members of society to ensure the equitable provision of learning for women and girls.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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