Media Briefings

IMPROVING WOMEN’S HEALTH HAS IMPROVED THEIR EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES: Medical advances have eradicated the gender gap in schooling

  • Published Date: April 2017

Vaccination and antibiotics were mostly responsible for closing the gender gap in education, according to a study by Mariko Klasing and Petros Milionis, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.

Today, in many countries women have on average more schooling than men, although this was historically not the case. The authors show that 80% of this gender gap was because women were on average less healthy than men, and therefore the spread of vaccines and antibiotics is largely responsible for closing the gap.

Better medical technology was promoted globally after World War II and, due to recently discovered differences in the way that male and female immune systems respond to vaccines, we now know this is a major reason why, between 1940 and 1980, female life expectancy at birth increased by 20% relative to male life expectancy. The authors show that this led to women gaining on average an additional half year of schooling compared with men.

The authors conclude: ‘The United Nations and World Health Organisation policies introduced after the Second World War, which promoted the diffusion of western medical knowledge and technologies, had much more important and far-reaching implications than previously established.’

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Improvements in female health have been the main reason for the closing of the gender gap in education

While traditionally women have had lower levels of education than men in most countries of the world, since the mid-20th century, faster growth in female schooling has led to the closing of this gender gap in education.

This change has been so remarkable that nowadays in most developed countries of the world, women have on average more years of schooling than men. While in principle there are many reasons driving this change, according to our study, the main reason has been improvements in female health, which account for 80% of the global reductions in the education gender gap.

Advances in medical technology, such as the invention of vaccines, antibiotics and other drugs during the 20th century have led to large reductions in deaths from infectious diseases for both men and women. Yet, women benefited more from these advances due to differences in the way their immune system responds to vaccines compared with men.

Our study exploits the existence of these differences, which have been recently established in medical research, in order to estimate the effect that improvements in health have had on educational attainment.

To conduct our analysis we use historical data going back to 1940 from 75 countries on years of schooling, life expectancy at birth and mortality rates from infectious diseases. Based on this data we document that between 1940 and 1980, female life expectancy at birth − a broad indicator of health − increased by 20% relative to male life expectancy. This differential change in life expectancy led to women gaining on average an additional half year of schooling compared with men.

While the larger improvements in female health and the closing of the gender gap in education have been, as independent patterns, documented before by economists and other social scientists, this is the first study that shows a causal link between the two.

Moreover, our study is novel in that it investigates the evolution of the education gender gap for a large sample of countries over a long time horizon. This global perspective, which is largely absent in previous studies, is important as the closing of the education gender gap is a global phenomenon that has been observed in various countries, more and less developed ones.

Our study further documents that the differential improvements in life expectancy of women and men had implications for economic development beyond their immediate impact on educational attainment. Specifically, we find that the improvements in female life expectancy contributed to larger economic gains in terms of income per capita growth than the improvements in male life expectancy.

These findings suggest that policies aimed at promoting gender equality can have large economic benefits that have an impact not just on women, but on society as a whole. They also suggest that global policies that focus on improving population health can have impacts that extend to other economically important domains, such as education, and, thus, should be promoted.

In that respect, the UN and WHO policies introduced after World War II, which promoted the diffusion of western medical knowledge and technologies, had much more important and far-reaching implications than previously established.

ENDS


‘The International Epidemiological Transition and the Education Gender Gap’ by Mariko J. Klasing and Petros Milionis from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

Contact:
Mariko J. Klasing: m.j.klasing@rug.nl
Petros Milionis: p.milionis@rug.nl