Despite progress in recent years, UNESCO says that more girls than boys remain out of school. In fact, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “16 million girls will never set foot in a classroom – and women account for two-thirds of the 750 million adults without basic literacy skills.”

There’s a widely-known African proverb that says “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” But is this true? What is the actual impact, according to data, of educating women? How do educated women impact the economy of their country?

In this month’s GoFigure! Report we took a deep-dive into data from The World Bank and found that countries with a higher rate of female participation in the workforce before the world economic crisis of 2008-2009 were more immune to it and bounced back to grow rapidly after the economic crisis.

I encourage everyone to read the full report to fully see the impact women have on their country’s economy. But, before doing that, let’s take a step back and look at the foundation that encourages, or discourages, women’s participation in the workforce in the first place: education.

The Impact of Secondary Education

Because the term “secondary education” can mean something different to everyone, let’s start with a definition. The World Bank, where our data was taken from, says:

“Secondary education completes the provision of basic education that began at the primary level, and aims at laying the foundations for lifelong learning and human development, by offering more subject- or skill-oriented instruction using more specialized teachers.”

Now, let’s look at how the attainment of a secondary education impacts the GDP per capita of a given country after the 2008-2009 world economic crisis.

When looking at secondary education in the years after the world economic crisis, we found that during the years 2009 and 2011-2012, the more equality of educational attainment between males and females, the higher the GDP per capita in a given country.

In the graph above, each circle represents a different country. The size of the circle indicates the GDP growth percentage. You can see that when a country has more equality in the education of girls and boys and a higher percentage of women in the workforce their GDP growth percentage is higher.

The graph below shows the same thing, except that the size of the circle represents the GDP per capita. It’s very apparent in this graph that, for the most part, where there is education equality between girls and boys and there is a high percentage of females in the workforce, the GDP per capita is higher.

The secret to higher GDP growth and higher GDP per capita is similar – more females in the workforce and more education equality.

Let’s dive a little bit deeper and look at a cross-section of specific countries from around the world. The table below shows countries that have an equal, or close to the equal, percentage of boys and girls that achieve a secondary education. You can see that these countries also have a high percentage of women in the workforce and, although they were hit hard during the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, their GDP change following the crisis was positive.

Making Women and Girls a Priority

Although it may seem obvious—especially when you look at the data—globally, education of women and girls is often not a top priority for governments and policymakers. According to Melinda Gates, “the economic lift from human capital investments comes decades later and can be harder to see. As a result, the world keeps missing opportunities to get better.”

So, what can be done to encourage the education of women and girls? Lowering barriers of entry to education for girls is a great place to start.

For example, in cultures that emphasize the importance of girls becoming wives and mothers, practices like child marriage and early childbearing keep girls out of the classroom and in the home. In fact, Global Partnership for Education says that girls who get married at 12 are 21% less likely to get a secondary education and girls who get married at 15 are 12% less likely to get a secondary education. On top of this, for families that rely on girls to do more household chores than boys, the cost of a girl’s education can seem much higher.

Another example? The stigma around menstruation and lack of access to sanitary products often leave girls ashamed and missing school every month. This may not seem like a lot of time but do the math: if a girl misses an average of four days per month due to menstruation, she ends up missing 48 days of school per year. Falling behind on lessons because of these missed days often forces girls to drop out of school completely.

Luckily, there are lots of organizations (like CAMFED, Girls Education International, and She’s The First) working to lower these and many other barriers to entry and make education of women and girls a priority for policymakers. If we can break down these barriers, we can come a lot closer to closing the education gap between boys and girls, empowering girls and women to take control of their destinies, and contribute to their communities and countries in a much larger way.

The data clearly shows it: when you educate girls and women and leverage their abilities in the workforce, you allow nations to prosper.

Download the full report See the interactive dashboard
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