How many times have you opened up a newspaper to read news about the latest matric or intermediate results to find that most of the top-scoring students were female?
Let’s refresh our collective memories: in August 2010 when the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) Lahore announced its Matriculation results, two girls, Ramla Ijaz and Zabreen Tahir, bagged the top two positions. In 2004, in the same examination, the Board found that girls scored better marks than boys on average, with 41 girls getting A grades and just two boys getting the same. In 2005 as well, Ayesha Iqbal came first in the same examination.
While conclusive evidence is hard to come by, it is clear that more and more girls are ruling their schools. Enrolment rates for women in secondary schools, degree colleges and universities look promising, as education statistics for 2008-09 reveal that 45 per cent of students enrolled in higher secondary or intermediate level schools were girls, and 44 per cent of students enrolled in universities were girls too.
That’s not all — according to the Academy of Educational Planning and Management, overall female enrolment in primary schools, both public and private, increased by over three per cent from 2007-08 to 2008-09. Female enrolment in secondary schools, teacher training institutes and vocational institutes also increased, with enrolment in universities increasing by over four per cent.
“Girls are getting serious about education!” declares a woman who is an institution in herself, prominent educationist Anita Ghulam Ali. Ms Ghulam Ali, Managing Director of the Sindh Education Foundation, goes so far as to say that more girls were pursuing higher education these days than boys.
“Girls tend to be more committed,” says Ms Ghulam Ali. “You have to realise that for many girls, pursuing higher education is the only way they can make something of themselves.”
Ms Ghulam Ali confirms that most position holders these days tend to be girls, especially in the Humanities. “However, I think this is more prevalent in middle class families... in more elite families, the top scorers still tend to be boys,” she says.
Why is that? According to Ms Ghulam Ali, girls in middle class families who attend public sector schools and universities are driven to succeed because education is the only ‘socially acceptable’ means for them to get out of their homes and do something. “Boys from this background seem to have fallen into a kind of apathy,” she notes. “Boys just want to make money, and in Pakistan, unfortunately, being educated does not necessarily translate into earning a good income.”
Ms Ghulam Ali sees this trend continuing in the future, mostly because of what she says are mothers’ changing attitudes. “These days mothers want their daughters to be educated- we see it even in the rural areas, where the bulk of our work is based. I think it’s because girls are seen as being more reliable... when girls work, they tend to hand their earnings over to their parents, it’s an added source of income.”
Of course, there is another factor that could explain why women have begun to outshine men in education: “You should also keep in mind that those women who make it to university level are already very committed to their studies- otherwise they wouldn’t even be in school,” says an official at the Sindh Education Foundation. “That’s why they excel, and will continue to excel wherever they go.”
Ayesha Ali*, a student on the honour roll at a Karachi medical college, says she too feels that girls consistently outperform boys in school and university. “This was reflected in our batch,” she says. “We had seven girls on the honour roll, and just two boys.”
There are indications that girls outperform boys at the primary level too. Mansoora Tufeyl, National Coordinator at the Aga Khan Education Service, focuses on work at the ECD level (Early Childhood Development). She says that in urban areas, girls at the primary level generally perform better than boys. However, girls’ performance and enrolment in schools in rural areas is still lagging. Interestingly, 2008-09 education statistics indicate that there are twice as many public sector primary schools in rural areas for boys compared to facilities provided to girls — one of the many hindrances to education girls in rural areas have to contend with.
However, whether this apparent success in education translates into success in the workplace is another matter. Ms Ghulam Ali says women are becoming increasingly active in the workforce, especially in rural areas: “In rural areas, the community prefers that health care providers and teachers be women — so there is a huge market for educated, skilled female professionals,” she says.
But while women’s participation in traditionally ‘female’ professions like teaching and nursing may have increased, what about their roles in banking, engineering and management?
HR consultant Leon Menezes says that while he feels women tend to be more industrious and reliable at the workplace, the real problem is “getting women to continue to pursue their careers after a certain point.”
“I’ve found that women want to work in departments like HR and brand management... they shy away from sales. But if you want to get to the top, you have to get your hands dirty in business roles.” Ultimately, Leon says the biggest obstacle women have to overcome is their own hesitancy: “The barrier you create in your own mind is much bigger than any barrier your family or society can use to obstruct your path to success,” he says.
With the expansion of the tertiary sector, however, and increased rural to urban migration, women who excel at school have a better chance at securing themselves a bright, successful, financially viable future. If women can be determined enough to stay in school and excel at their studies at the same time, there’s likely no force powerful enough to keep them from translating their scholastic success to victories in the workplace.
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 6th, 2011.
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