In a college commencement speech in 2011, the United Nation's (UN) Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, declared the 21st century would be the "century of girls and women." Education, she declared, was a key way to empower girls and women throughout the world. Women have heeded the education call to arms and officials have noted that few development dollars provide a larger payoff than educating girls and women. In the United States (U.S.) women are outnumbering men in higher education. The developing world has been more varied, with girls showing progress in completing primary education but falling off in large numbers by the secondary and tertiary levels.
But equality in the classroom is about more than a presence. It's about attitude and expectations. In a recent study of 1,700 university-level biology students in the U.S., male respondents under-estimated the abilities of their female classmates and over-estimated the males. In other words, a woman would need to earn an "A" grade to match the prestige of a male's "B" grade. Think this only has to do with a few barely post-adolescent boys? Think again. Women who co-author economics papers are given less credit (this is very bad in the publish-or-perish world of academia). It's not just academic economists that seem to have a woman problem. It plagues the field. Ditto the sciences, and even that once female domain of nursing is witnessing male nurses out-earning their female counterparts despite still being a small fraction of the profession.
The list is really endless. Every day, whether I want to or not, I'm confronted with the persistent and pernicious reality of gender bias. And we have it relatively good here in the United States. But regardless of the particulars, gender bias is about believing that women and girls are somehow lesser beings, whether social, political, economic, or all of the above. This belief becomes institutionalized and socialized in a vicious circle that is difficult to overcome. While education is critically important, that education must begin in the home and focus on the equal and intrinsic worth of the female child. From this all other changes become possible.