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Tackling the reverse gender gap in the Caribbean

reverse gender gap

There is a reverse gender gap in the Caribbean. This points to the need for increased efforts to keep boys in school and engage dropouts to return to school. The World Bank’s updated gender strategy aims to address these challenges by engaging boys and men in gender-specific issues.

World Bank

Boys in the Caribbean are suffering educational setbacks in what has been termed a “reverse gender gap,” and this is posing challenges to the region’s socioeconomic landscape. In Jamaica, for example, fewer boys and men attend upper secondary school and tertiary education, and this is affecting the male population – and the rural and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations – more than others. 

The World Bank’s updated gender strategy aims to address these challenges by engaging boys and men in gender-specific issues. The strategy also reaffirms the World Bank’s commitment to equality and inclusion, including for sexual and gender minorities. Emre Özaltin, the World Bank’s Lead Economist and Program Leader for Human Development in the Caribbean, sheds light on the implications of the updated gender strategy in an interview focusing on three big questions.

What impact does the Bank's updated gender strategy have on our work with clients and projects in the region? How is the reverse gender gap affecting human development and labor market outcomes? 

There is a reverse gender gap in the Caribbean. Girls are much more likely to complete secondary and tertiary education. This points to the need for increased efforts to keep boys in school and engage dropouts to return to school, including through TVET [technical and vocational education and training]. High dropout rates contribute to behavioral challenges, including crime and violence, as well as adolescent pregnancies. These are critical issues in our region.

However, males who remain in education systems tend to be clustered in the more critical areas of the curriculum, namely STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and technical crafts. And in the labor market we return to a traditional gender gap. So, women have better education, but are less likely to be employed than men. Therefore, a second policy implication, and in keeping with the new gender strategy, is the need to focus on women’s economic empowerment in all its aspects. The region cannot develop while leaving half of its workforce behind. 

The new gender strategy provides a strong framework for addressing some of these challenges, including by increasing digitalization. 

Would you say that the reverse gender gap is evolving into a socioeconomic crisis across the Caribbean?

I am not sure that the reverse gender gap is necessarily a key culprit. It is great that girls in the region are completing school and doing well. This is not the case in many other regions. So, in one sense, this is something to be lauded. But, of course, it is a challenge if boys are dropping out or don't see a sort of productive future ahead. This is a contributing factor to crime and violence. On the other hand, on the economic front, the potential of an educated female labor force remains poorly harnessed. 

What is the outlook for the progress and outcomes of education in the Caribbean in the coming years? What do we have in the pipeline?  

I think we have a unique opportunity to have a large impact on education in the Caribbean through our ongoing and planned activities. 

To cite a just few examples:

  • In Haiti, we are building schools resilient to climate and other shocks, and we have supported the Ministry of Education in rolling out a basic education package in public and private schools.
  • In Jamaica, we have a recent engagement in secondary education, and we are in discussions with the government on a programmatic engagement that will eventually address sectoral challenges across the spectrum. 
  • In Guyana, the World Bank is the development partner lead for education, and through four different projects we are supporting the entire sector from preschool to TVET and tertiary education. 
  • We also have a regional project focused on skills and innovation, upgrading facilities and curricula for skills development, and then providing entrepreneurship opportunities for those who receive training. This is in partnership with the OECS Commission [Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States], and it is currently in Saint Lucia and Grenada. We plan to expand this to more countries next year. 

In short, our approach is to have rapid impact at scale. This will mean focusing on regional integration and synergies, as well as on digital, which is crucial in the education sector. 

As the program leader for human development for the Caribbean, what are the main challenges in education in the region and, secondly, how do you think these will contribute to “lasting peace,” considering this year’s theme for International Education Day?

Education is a top priority for the counties of the Caribbean. Most countries invest a significant portion of their national budgets in education, and there are many important reforms underway. It is also a priority for the people of the Caribbean. In our client surveys, education is consistently the most important development priority in the region and it is also rated the top sector for World Bank involvement and where the Bank can have the biggest impact. 

Despite this, important challenges remain: 

  1. For me, the most important issue is that of inequality. Most Caribbean countries have excellent education opportunities for a minority of people, and quite poor ones for the rest of their population. On top of that, a significant portion of those with good education emigrate, and so the Caribbean is financing education systems that benefit other countries. This broken social contract has implications for things like crime and violence and economic development, two important factors for peace and stability. 

  2. Related to this is the issue of the quality of education. Important reforms on curricula, financing, and management are needed. Workforce planning, especially to deal with out-migration, is essential. 

  3. And we need to ensure that the skills we are giving our children match those needed in today’s and tomorrow’s labor markets. Half of the firms in the region report that the main reason for unfilled positions is the lack of applicants with the requisite skills. Most jobs in our region are low productivity.

  4. And finally, I would note the challenge of data. There is a paucity of good data for decision making for education in the Caribbean. For example, nine countries in our region are not featured in the Human Capital Index due to the lack of internationally comparable data for measuring the quality of education. This points to the importance of better data and better analytics. 


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