Capabilities, distributive justice, education systems and assessments of gender inequality in education

Unterhalter, Elaine; Peppin Vaughan, Rosie (2018). 'Capabilities, distributive justice, education systems and assessments of gender inequality in education' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The paper considers the question of what we ought to compare between individuals, institutions  and countries when we make assertions about gender injustice in education, how to evaluate this, and what metrics might help to steer policy change. Currently the main metric concerned with gender and education in evaluative frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is gender parity (the ratio of girls to boys or men to women) in school enrolments, progression, attainment, and training opportunities for teachers. However, gender parity is a data driven metric, based on administrative data collected as part of the management of education systems or the information assembled in national and cross national testing regimes. It is a clumsy metric to look at questions of gender injustice ( Unterhalter, 2016 Unterhalter, 2017a; 2017b). Large numbers of girls and women may be present  in the education system, and  many of them may attain highly in tests.  However this presence  or achievement may tell us little about gender injustices. Girls and women may enrol and complete education, and yet have few opportunities  in relation to  reproductive rights, employment, social security, political participation and challenging gender based violence. Gender parity gives no indication whether  girls at school and women who work in education may be learning how to tolerate gender inequalities, rather than gaining confidence to challenge and confront these.  The metric thus may be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for gender justice.  Indeed some perverse effects do not always help to steer towards forms of gender justice in education. While more refined indicators have been developed, some drawing on the capability approach, that consider aspects of school related gender based violence, the levels of training of men and women teachers,  education experiences within particular institutions, and enablers for intersecting equalities ( eg. Walker and McLean, 2013; Unterhalter, 2015; Peppin Vaughan, 2016; Wilson Strydom and Okkolin, 2016) ,  these are unevenly considered as part of the debate about indicators for the education  SDGs. Thus the metrics currently in use do not help map the capabilities that are associated with gender equality in education or the  institutions which can support this.  This raises questions about how we understand distributive justice, gender equalities and capabilities.

The paper reports on the first phase of work of an ESRC funded research project developing some of the conceptual underpinnings and approaches to measurement for an alternative indicator of gender equality in education linked to the SDGs. The first part of the paper situates this work conceptually in some of the debates about measuring gender justice linked with the capability approach, and explores how employing the concept of capabilities has the potential to construct a metric which reflects  more accurately the ways in which gender inequality affects individuals in education. It puts these conceptual clarifications into dialogue with the largely pragmatic approach to data and measurement adopted by the technical committees associated with the SDGs working under the UN Statistical Commission and the UNESCO Institute of Statistics . The second part of the paper presents debates about how to understand education systems and poses some questions about how they position gender. It contrasts  views  on education systems analysis and what is termed a global learning crisis, developed by Pritchett (2015)  and the authors of the World Bank’s  2018 World Development Report (World Bank, 2018), with the analysis made by Ben Fine in formulating the notion of systems of provision (SoP) ( Fine, 2017a; 2017b). For the World Bank analysis, gender inequality, and the complexities of location (rural/urban)  or poverty level is a kind  of technical inefficiency in the system,  which can be measured by looking at descriptive distributional metrics of learning outcomes, such as gender parity or wealth quintiles.  The implication is that the system will be performing better when these metrics improve.The SoP analysis, by contrast, sees these inequalities  as much more organic to the contextual, constructed and commodified ways in which systems of provision work. SoP thus prompts a consideration of a range of constraints on capabilities, and prompts a more nuanced examination of how gender inequality in education works, and what metrics or indicators might help document the intersecting dimensions of this and help towards a deeper understanding of distributive justice.

 In the concluding section the analysis draws on the  conceptual work on capabilities and systems to develop a dashboard approach to measuring gender equality in education that can be useful in  participatory discussions of indicators for the SDGs. It considers how capabilities, and the contested processes SoP alerts us to, point to the need for more, not less global, national and local participation in generating indicators to measure and develop practice for gender equality in education.



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Fine, B. (2017)b. The material and culture of financialisation. New Political Economy22(4), 371-382.

Peppin Vaughan, R. (2016). Education, social justice and school diversity: Insights from the capability approach. Journal of Human Development and Capabilities17(2), 206-224.

Pritchett, L. (2015). Creating education systems coherent for learning outcomes: Making the transition from schooling to learning. Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) Working Paper,

Unterhalter, E.. (2015,). Measuring gender inequality and equality in education. In Proceedings of workshop hosted by UNGEI. United Nation Girls' Initiative (UNGEI).

.Unterhalter, E. (2017a). Negative capability? Measuring the unmeasurable in education. Comparative Education53(1), 1-16

Unterhalter, E. (2017b) ‘The many meanings of measuring quality education:  politics, targets and indicators in  SDG4’ Paper presented at Power of Numbers workshop, New School, New York, November.

Wilson-Strydom, M., & Okkolin, M. A. (2016). Enabling environments for equity, access and quality education post-2015: Lessons from South Africa and Tanzania. International Journal of Educational Development49, 225-233.

Walker, M., & McLean, M. (2013). Professional education, capabilities and the public good: The role of universities in promoting human development. Routledge.

World Bank, 2018, Learning to realize education’s promise Washington: World Bank

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