Suman Bhattacharjea | Mapping girls’ route from school to work
The recently released Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 focused on the age group 14-18 years, reaching close to 35,000 young people in 28 districts across the country. It included a section on young people’s access to and use of digital technology, including the actual tasks that the youth were asked to do using a familiar smartphone -- their own, a family member’s, or a neighbour’s.
One of these tasks asked the young people to use Google Maps to figure out how long it would take them to get from their current location to the district bus stand on a two-wheeler. Of those who could bring a smartphone, almost half of the males (49%) but only half that proportion of females (25%) could figure out the answer. When one considers that far more males than females were able to access a smartphone for the few minutes required for this process – 73 per cent of males versus 62 per cent of the females -- the gender gap is even more extreme.
Other sections of the ASER 2023 findings show a very different picture. For example, girls are staying in school much longer. Even among 17-18-year-olds, the gender gap in enrolment is less than one per cent. Still more promising is the fact that most girls in this age group expressed the desire to stay within the education system and complete at least undergraduate level studies, if not more. In fact, more females aspired to continue to higher levels of education than their male counterparts.
These are welcome trends. But they reflect a conundrum. Females are staying in school longer and wanting to study more than males in this age group, but at the same time they lag behind males on every single assessment task other than basic reading proficiency. These included basic arithmetic, applied reading and arithmetic tasks, simple financial calculations as well as digital tasks. What accounts for this gender gap in outcomes? Returning to the question of the Google Maps task, we examine three dimensions of the answer to this question -- familiarity with the technology, familiarity with the type of task being posed, and self-confidence in attempting tasks that may be difficult or unfamiliar.
At first glance it appears that young people of both sexes have the necessary exposure to the technology: as many as 95 per cent of males and 90 per cent of females reported knowing how to use a smartphone. However, males were more than twice as likely to own their own smartphone than females, and thus could potentially use the device for a wider variety of tasks. In the ASER data, for example, males were twice as likely as females to have ever used a smartphone to access online services such as paying a bill or booking a ticket (38% males vs 19% females). Owning a smartphone also makes it easier to do activities that are unrelated to work or education: for example, 69 per cent males vs 46 per cent females reported played games on a smartphone during the reference week.
In short, although the overall penetration of smartphone technology in rural India has grown enormously in recent years, women clearly have far less access to it than their male counterparts.
In-depth focus group discussions with students in rural secondary and higher secondary classes highlighted other aspects of the problem. We asked these young people how far they had travelled outside their village. This exercise served two purposes. First, we wanted to understand a little more about these young people’s exposure to other people, places, and ways of living and thinking. Second, their comments gave us a sense of the extent to which they had agency, interpreted here as the ability to define a goal -- for example, go for a day trip to the nearest city with a group of friends -- and act towards achieving it. One pattern that emerged was that in every case, boys had travelled further afield than girls. The difference was not only in terms of how far they had travelled, but also with regard to decision-making about the trip.
Boys’ travel was often more intentional: they were going to specific places with a clear individual purpose in mind, not just to accompany members of the family. Girls, on the other hand, tended to have travelled much less and when they did it was usually to accompany family members, typically to visit relatives, go shopping, or visit a religious site. With travel logistics usually planned by the men in the family, the idea of using apps on a smartphone to do so may have been difficult for girls to grasp.
In a context where young women’s behaviour tends to rely heavily on families’ approval, how can young women develop curiosity, critical thinking, and the courage to take risks? In ASER 2023, sampled females were not only doing worse on every single assessment item than sampled males, they were also refusing to even attempt the questions far more often than their male counterparts. On every assessment task -- spanning basic arithmetic, applied reading and arithmetic, financial calculations, and digital tasks -- far more females failed to attempt the task than males. For the Google Maps task, fully 55 per cent of the females to whom it was administered refused to even attempt the task, as compared to 32 per cent of the males. They did not even try to figure it out.
Many factors influence young people’s decision to join the labour force after completing their studies. Role models at home or in the community make an enormous difference. For girls in many parts of the country, teachers are often the only role models available. Schools can provide different kinds of pathways to help young people visualise and navigate the transition between school and work, including providing exposure to different work options via vocational courses, organising exposure visits, and facilitating internships, among others. But perhaps most important is the need to encourage girls’ own sense of agency. The young people we spoke to told us that nobody had ever asked them what they wanted to do in the future, much less help them think these aspirations through. A good first step for schools may be to invite students to express their opinions about where they want to go and help them think through different ways of getting there.