This is my final paper, completed on 2018-04-25, for Dr. Judit Szente‘s course, EDF 6855: Equitable Educational Opportunity & Life Chances: A Cross-National Analysis, at University of Central Florida. It builds on my 2018-03-01 midterm paper, Women and Children in Bangladesh: The Effects of the Grameen Bank, the World Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education.
Closing the Gaps for Gender and Socioeconomic Equality in the US and Bangladesh
University of Central Florida
The purpose of this paper is to document gaps in gender equality, socioeconomic status, language, and race in the United States and Bangladesh, with a focus on diverse children and educational inequities. Then, an action plan is suggested for both countries. While the US is highly developed, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a densely populated South Asian country that borders India, is a United Nation’s “least developed country,” with many of the 163 million residents living in poverty. Nevertheless, there are many inequities in both countries.
Here, I will discuss the current status of several equity issues in the US and Bangladesh.
The United States of America
Status of gender equality.
Pay and occupational power. At upper levels of corporations, organizations, and government, women are very much unrepresented (Barreto, Ryan, & Schmitt, 2009). Women are often not able to succeed due to discrimination, stereotypes, and childcare. Although the gender pay gap has narrowed during 1970–2000, this trend has stopped in the 21st century (Mandel & Semyonov, 2014), suggesting that further progress will be more difficult. While blatant economic discrimination is disappearing or going underground, the portion that remains is often due to childcare or other expectations reducing hours worked and constraining women’s schedules. Additionally, in the public sector, gender segregation is still widespread (Mandel & Semyonov, 2014).
Education. US achievement falls short compared to Finland, and students with lower income and minorities have worse outcomes (Spitzer & Aronson, 2015). Although females are better at writing, earn better grades, and earn more college degrees than males, they tend to become uninterested and unconfident in their abilities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects as they move through secondary school (Spitzer & Aronson, 2015). This “math anxiety” is reinforced by sociocultural stereotypes of females being bad at mathematics, results in poor performance particularly on timed, high-stakes tests, and reinforces gender inequity over the long term, as it prevents many females from entering high-paying professions for which STEM skills are prerequisites.
Socioeconomic status. Equality of socioeconomic status has been deteriorating since the 1970s, with the wealthiest 1% accumulating an ever-increasing share of American wealth (Saez & Zucman, 2014). At the same time, the majority of Americans are saving little (the savings rate was actually negative during 1998–2008), taking on debt, and failing to invest in bonds, equities, or their retirement funds (Lusardi & Mitchell, 2007, 2011). Commonly reported measures conceal the inequality by focusing on median income rather than the median–mean gap in accumulation of wealth. Low socioeconomic status has a negative effect on outcomes for women, children, and families. Even when looking at income, the US’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income dispersion (Yitzhaki, 1979), was 41 in 2013, indicating more inequality than many other countries including Bangladesh.
Issues related to language.
Language. The US has a large Spanish-speaking population, but research shows that they face inequity, even as early as kindergarten, where Spanish-speaking English learners are less than half as likely to be reclassified as English proficient than speakers of other languages (Slama, 2014). Additionally, about 22% of the sample Salma (2014) studied had to re-take kindergarten, and many more had academic difficulties later in primary school.
Numeracy. Another literacy issue is numeracy, or the ability to understand and work with numbers. Among American adults, 29% are below minimum levels of numeracy proficiency (UNESCO, 2017, p. 200), with greater proportions being numerically illiterate among minorities, the poor, and the less educated. Overall, literacy on all fronts is a vital issue that contributes to civic engagement, friendships, financial gains, and parenting (UNESCO, 2016), and therefore, more focus on equity here is essential to tackling inequities in the US.
Issues related to race. In the US, race arguably sits at the intersection of academic self-efficacy, gender, socioeconomic status, and status as an immigrant (Bécares & Priest, 2015; Bondy, Peguero, & Johnson, 2017). Racial and ethnic minorities have a clear academic achievement gap, with immigrants, blacks, and Hispanic students faring worse. Overall, there is much progress left to be made in ensuring equity for these disadvantaged groups.
The People’s Republic of Bangladesh
Status of gender equality. Bangladesh is poor, highly populous, and prone to floods and cyclones, which often impact women and children worse, perpetuating inequality (UNESCO, 2016, p. 33). Although female educational attainment is rising, which has also had the positive outcome of reducing birth rates (UNESCO, 2016, p. 83), there is still a long way to go toward equality. For instance, wealthy Bangladeshi women are four times as likely to receive prenatal care than poor women (UNICEF, 2016, p. 20). Young girls are often married off before adulthood, and girls often have less access to education. However, on the positive side, Bangladesh is the home of the Grameen Bank (2018), a micro-lending institution that focuses on aiding women with their small businesses at relatively low interest rates. Nonetheless, although school attendance is up, thanks in part to the work of the Global Partnership for Education (2018), the World Bank, and UNESCO, Bangladeshi culture perpetuates gender inequality by discouraging school attendance as unfeminine, in part because of Islamic traditions (Miaji, 2010; Sarker & Salam, 2011).
Socioeconomic status. Inequality in socioeconomic status in Bangladesh is moderate (Gini coefficient of 32 as of 2010, a measure of income dispersion; see Yitzhaki, 1979). A good sign is that although private schools are common in Bangladesh, they actually charge the same low fees as public schools due to government funding (UNESCO, 2016, pp. 187–188). Promisingly, substantial efforts to educate rural and poor children have recently been undertaken by Bangladesh’s government and the World Bank (2017). However, in 2014, the upper secondary school completion rate was a paltry 19% (UNESCO, 2017, p. 129). Lack of education serves to perpetuate socioeconomic inequalities across generations. Moreover, although a standardized test at the end of primary school (Grade 5) has been introduced, the exam fails at measuring competence, does not have special resources allocated to it, and cannot even serve as a reliable measure of achievement (UNESCO, 2017, p. 133).
Issues related to language. Bangladesh is homogeneous, with the vast majority speaking Bengali. In fact, this shared language is a source of cultural and nationalistic identity (Mahboob, 2009). Although English has no official status, families with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to speak it, and it is frequently used in higher education, which contributes to inequity. Wealthier children may be advantaged by learning English earlier and more thoroughly, making them even more likely to succeed in college and in their careers.
Issues related to race. I was not able to locate research on race in Bangladesh. However, it is a majority-Muslim country with patriarchal ideologies, according to at least one commentator (Miaji, 2010). We may also speculate that religious minorities (e.g., Hindus) and racial minorities face discrimination in Bangladesh.
Action Plan to Close the Gaps and Achieve Growth
Here, I will lay out actionable steps the US and Bangladesh can take to address the issues.
The United States of America
Gender equality. Spitzer and Aronson (2015) show that social psychological interventions can be useful in countering stereotype threat and other subconscious beliefs. U.S. females already tend to do better in school than their male counterparts. Countering stereotypes about STEM ability and career fields may be critical to closing the gender pay gap. Another important area is in allowing paid time off for expectant and new mothers, both in the private and public sectors (Mandel & Semyonov, 2014).
Socioeconomic status. U.S. socioeconomic inequities are deeply rooted and require attack on many fronts. Personal financial literacy (Lusardi & Mitchell, 2011) is important and is lacking especially among the working poor. This might be addressed by targeted education programs before opening a bank account, receiving a loan, et cetera (Fernandes, Lunch, & Netemeyer, 2014). More importantly, additional government regulation of finance and related industries is needed to prevent institutions from taking advantage of the poor and middle-class (Willis, 2009). There are also many tax loopholes and schemes in the US that allow the wealthy to become even wealthier. Changing these laws may require campaign finance reforms that prevent politicians from receiving funds from wealthy donors, as these politicians go on to write laws that benefit the richest 1%. Finally, a focus on partly or fully subsidized access to medical care, education, housing, and other services for the poor and middle-class is needed.
Language. Although progress is being made in this area, elevating Spanish, the most common second-language in the US, to official status may be a step toward equity for Spanish speakers. This might be best pursued at the individual state level, as individual U.S. states have great authority in governance decisions and policymaking.
Race. Race issues often appear intractable, but continued activism and attention is needed to facilitate a move toward equity. Schools in U.S. states are often funded by property tax revenues, with wealthier whites congregating in suburbs to send their children to “good” schools, creating de-facto segregation that perpetuates advantages for whites while disadvantaging minorities. This could be tackled by changing the U.S. federal government’s Title I funding program to emphasize funding to minority schools, and by states pooling school funds and allocating them on a per-pupil basis rather than based on local tax revenues. Unfortunately, such changes are a politically intractable and many states have school funding mechanisms written in their constitutions or otherwise made inordinately difficult to change.
The People’s Republic of Bangladesh
More funding for education, if administered appropriately and equitably, is important to multiple issues of equity. In 2015, the Campaign for Popular Education appealed to Bangladesh’s prime minister to increase the education budget to 20% of the government’s annual budget by 2021 (UNESCO, 2017, p. 23). Pushing politicians and other people of influence for such commitments is important toward achieving equity. Similar methods were used to bring about the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US.
Gender equality and socioeconomic status. One way to promote gender equality is to offer stipends for families whose girls consistently attend school (Hahn, Islam, Nuzhat, Smyth, & Yang, 2017). This not only contributes to gender equality, but also socioeconomic equality. Stipends can be targeted to at-risk females in rural areas and from poor families. Countering Islamic patriarchal culture (Miaji, 2010; Sarker & Salam, 2011) with progressive social-norms education and public advertising campaigns may also be of use. Encouraging women to start or expand small businesses (e.g., Grameen Bank, 2018) can promote gender equity via financial success. Overall, socioeconomic equality is aided by promoting educational attainment and offering public services and support to the poor. Some of these efforts are underway now (e.g., World Bank, 2017).
Language and race. Although I found limited research in these areas, prioritizing English education not just for wealth Bangladeshi people, but for the poor as well may be helpful. At the same time, there may be more pressing issues that would improve equity for the poor. Recognizing the importance of females’ education, employment, and self-identity is also critical, but requires a shift in religious ideology (Sarker & Salam, 2011).
Comparison Between the US and Bangladesh
Surprisingly, in some ways the US actually seems worse on measures of equity, despite being the world’s leading developed country. The US makes up about half the global economy with just 4% of the global population, yet on all dimensions we looked at (i.e., gender, socioeconomic status, language, and race), there are large inequities. For instance, the US’s Gini coefficient is higher than Bangladesh (41 vs. 32), showing that income inequality is larger in the US (Yitzhaki, 1979). While wealth inequality has increased since the 1970s in the US, in Bangladesh, great strides are being made among multiple dimensions—gender, education, and alleviation of poverty. Nevertheless, Bangladesh still has a long path ahead on the road toward being a middle developing country.
The issues I looked at here not only shed light on equity in the US and Bangladesh, but are also a useful framework to evaluate many nations’ progress toward equity along multiple dimensions. However, although these issues are important, it is paramount that global birth rates and carbon emissions be greatly reduced to prevent a climatic crisis in the coming century. Poverty alleviation, gender equity, and education all result in lowered birth rates. However, we have no practical solution for climate change and much of the damage has already occurred. Nevertheless, this should not be construed as an excuse to do nothing.
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Youjin, H., Islam, A., Nuzhat, K., Smyth, R., & Yang, H.-S. (2018). Education, marriage, and fertility: Long-term evidence from a female stipend program in Bangladesh. Economic Development & Cultural Change, 66, 383–415. https://doi.org/10.1086/694930
- In the US, accumulation of wealth (net worth) is far more unequal than annual income. Median statistics look at the 50th percentile, while mean statistics are the average of everyone. The mean on both measures is greatly skewed upward by the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and, in particular, the wealthiest 0.1%. [Go back]
- Although not in reference to direct quotes, in several places I include page numbers when citing lengthy UNESCO and UNICEF documents, for ease-of-reference. [Go back]