• Sharon Chau

100 Years of Women at Oxford

Image Credits: St. Hugh's College

This article was published in Cherwell on 14 Dec 2020. Link: https://cherwell.org/2020/12/14/100-years-of-women-at-oxford/.

2020 marks the centenary of women being awarded degrees at the University of Oxford. Women were first granted full membership to the University on 7 October 1920, and were given the right to be awarded degrees a week later. As much as this is a cause for celebration, it is sobering to think that only a hundred years have passed since women were allowed to properly study here. Much remains to be done to equalise access to higher education for young girls, especially for those from worse-off socioeconomic backgrounds.

But while we lament the problems we see at home, from stereotypes that contribute to fewer women in STEM higher education or the microaggressions and sexual harassment women face on campus (all of which are serious issues to be tackled), women in other parts of the world are faring much worse. Many young girls do not get the chance to attend school at all. A shocking example is South Sudan, which has been named as the toughest nation in the world for girls to receive an education. Nearly three-quarters of girls there fail to attend even primary school. As for the Central African Republic, there is only one teacher for every 80 students, contributing to very low attendance rates. And there is a gendered dimension here – nearly twice as many girls (38%) are out of school as boys (20%) in the Central African Republic. Research demonstrates that uneducated girls are more at risk of poverty, child marriage, violence and diseases such as HIV and AIDS. Clearly, something needs to be done for female education around the world.

The benefits of educating girls are quite intuitive. It vastly increases women’s participation in the labour market through equipping them with crucial skills and qualifications for employment, and through changing stereotypes about women’s roles. As earning power increases through education, women become more self-sufficient and autonomous, which frees them from an unhappy marriage or any marriage at all. Female education also slows down population growth, as educated women are more likely to delay marriages and use birth control. Infant mortality rates are lowered as well – each one-year increment in mothers’ education corresponds to a 7-9% decline in under-5 mortality in many developing countries. Lower mortality rates decrease population growth due to a declined need for many children as a risk insurer, and slower population growth in a stagnant economy leads to more resources per capita since the total economic pie is divided among fewer mouths. All these are clear reasons why female education is incredibly important, not just for the women themselves, but for the country and development as a whole.

But if female education creates so many benefits, why do so few girls around the world go to school compared to boys? This is due to a few factors – the opportunity cost of losing a pair of hands in the home, social and cultural norms surrounding female schooling, and low economic returns to investing into girls’ education. Not sending daughters to school is often a rational choice when they will be taken care of by their husbands, when nontuition costs such as transportation and learning materials are high, and when girls can stay home and fetch water or help their mothers take care of younger siblings. Girls might also not be sent to school because parents are afraid of physical or moral harm done to them, as demonstrated in longitudinal studies in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

In light of these barriers, governments have to develop explicit policies to increase girls’ education. This should include providing financial incentives for families, decreasing physical barriers for schooling, and changing norms surrounding female education. For example, governments could pay parents for consistent attendance or achievement of their children, build more schools in densely populated areas or provide transportation subsidies, and have advertising campaigns on the benefits of sending daughters to school. This changes the financial calculus of parents, making them more likely to view female education as a rational and sound choice. The success of similar education programs has been demonstrated in many countries. For example, Mexico’s PROGRESA program, which provides stipends for school attendance, is credited with increasing girls’ primary completion by 15%; a scholarship program for girls in Bangladesh has almost doubled female enrollment; and Indonesia has reached 90% enrollment for girls through building new schools that meet the specific educational needs of girls. These case studies show how active efforts by governments can remedy the inequality within education currently borne by young girls.

In addition, governments ought to scrutinise education materials and prevent them from entrenching insidious stereotypes, which are prevalent in many textbooks. Instead, education can be a powerful way to cultivate a virtuous cycle through increased illustrations of female scientists and doctors or expanded STEM programs for girls. If all these policies are adopted by governments, we can expect girls’ attendance in certain developing countries to skyrocket and, slowly but surely, for the benefits analysed above to materialise.

It is vital that feminists in the West deal with the many problems women face nowadays, such as the gender pay gap, sexual assault, the lack of representation, and prevalent stereotypes that prevent women from achieving their potential. Indeed, the fact that it has only been a hundred years since women were awarded degrees at Oxford is a grave reminder of the long way to go. However, it is also incredibly important to widen our scope and look into worse problems that afflict millions of women worldwide, including female genital mutilation, stifling cultural practices, and the lack of access to things like abortion or education. As a feminist and a student privileged enough to attend the University of Oxford, I am conscious of problems that myself and many women around me face. But I must also channel my privilege into trying to help the women who are suffering the most.


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©2020 by Sharon Chau