The Collective Cost of Not Educating Girls: The UN Weighs In

It is a moral issue, sure. But from an economic standpoint, it’s macro-critical

Maria Collinge
March 15, 2024
Almost two thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are women. So what are the overall costs on society? (Image: Female Invest)
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We have achieved so much as women. But the reality is that education for girls remains a pertinent issue in 2022. Despite significant improvements in women’s education over the past 60 years, the fact that Prime Ministers, A-list celebrities and policy institutes are marching on the fight is a clear signal that we’re far from there yet. Because the truth is, millions of women around the world continue to be denied access to education. And the worst part is that almost two thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are women. Take that in for a second. And this comes with a price: an estimated loss of global wealth of between US $15 trillion and US $30 trillion. Surely something needs to change.

So as we reflect on the incredible progress women have made this International Women’s Day, let’s also remind ourselves the far-reaching positive transformation female education has both economically and socially for the communities we find ourselves in. To help us understand the issue from a macroeconomic perspective, we invited UN Women Research and Data Policy Specialist, Ginette Azcona, to weigh in.

A global picture

According to the World Bank Survey only three in four girls complete secondary education and in poorer countries, the figures plummet to one in four. Yes, those with primary education earn 15% more than women with no education at all. But did you know that women with secondary school education earn almost twice as much as those with no education at all? That’s a staggering amount, and a cause worth fighting for when money equals freedom. 

“Denying women and girls the right to education is detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual and society" (Andre Hunter/Unsplash)

UN Research and Data Policy Specialist, Ginette Azcona, explains that “denying women and girls the right to education is detrimental to the wellbeing of the individual and society. A girl denied the right to an education is more likely to be married too young, to be burdened too early with caring responsibilities and to be deprived access to a living wage, and therefore likely to live in poverty.”

Women are underrepresented in STEM subjects

According to research by the UN, women make up a minority of students (35%) in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, and just 3% in information and communication technology studies. Azcona says: “This gender gap is important, particularly if we consider the transformation that is currently taking place in job markets around the world. For women to compete equally in the job markets of tomorrow, more efforts are needed in addressing these remaining gaps.”

Boosting economic growth

But let’s dial back to economic growth, because research shows that when we unlock women’s potential, the economy reaps the rewards. This was proven the case throughout the 20th century, as more women persevered with education and found themselves increasingly represented in the workforce. 

And why? Well for countries with low levels of female participation in the workforce, closing the gender gap could lead to GDP growth as high as 35%. Conversely, it’s estimated that gender gaps cost the economy some 15% of GDP. That’s a strong economic argument right there. So now it’s about shaking up the status quo and making women an essential part of economic growth. 

Education is a great equaliser. Every woman deserves the right to it.

Improving women’s wages

Referencing a 2022 UN Women report, Azcona highlights that “each additional year of schooling can boost a girl’s earnings as an adult by up to 20 per cent.” This point is made more poignant by a UNESCO report which revealed that in Pakistan, women who obtain higher levels of literacy generally earned a staggering 95% more than women with poor or no literacy skills.

It goes without saying that the financial implications outlined here have the potential to secure women’s financial certainty, and equip them with the vital resources to up level their individual outcomes. Azcona adds “particularly if coupled with gender-responsive labour reform and broader efforts to address gender inequality – including around the more equal distribution of unpaid care work.” And let’s not forget that women earning more stretches beyond their individual outcomes, but provides larger tax intake for governments.

Equality for women

An obvious benefit to educating women is that it helps to establish the gap that still exists between men and women in terms of equality. Education, in and of itself, is a great equaliser – so the simple premise of having them included in the classroom is crucial!

Women deserve an equal footing in society and being given the same keys to a sufficient education will empower them and unlock their potential. Not only does it provide women with the language fluency, analytical skills, and problem solving abilities essential for academic and professional success, but “it unlocks greater opportunities for women to find decent work, to increase political representation and so on” says Azcona.

Equal education for girls is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic necessity (Image: Female Invest)

Macroeconomic transformation

When women are educated, everyone wins – it’s an equation that’s as simple as it is powerful. That’s because women play a crucial role in driving economic growth, too: just a 1% increase of women being educated leads to a 0.3% increase in the average gross domestic product, and boosts annual GDP growth by 0.2 percentage points. And just to hone that point in further, increased educational attainment accounts for about 50% of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years.

“The costs (of not educating women) are massive” says Azcona. “Estimates vary on the cost in terms of GDP growth, but its clear that societies that deny girls’ right to education fair worse across a broad set of development outcomes, including health and poverty reduction.” She adds that “protracted conflicts, wars and renewed efforts to keep girls out of school perpetuate gender gaps in access to school and learning: More than half of the nearly 130 million girls not enrolled in formal education worldwide (54%) reside in crisis-affected countries.”

Female Invest x UN Refugee Agency

As a financial education and learning platform, we don’t claim to be the answer to the problem, but we’re doing our bit to educate women worldwide. That’s why we’ve partnered with the UN Refugee Agency on their Aiming Higher for Women campaign. This campaign is geared towards raising funds to enable refugee women to pursue a university degree, or alternative forms of higher education. All royalties from our book sales in March will be donated to this campaign. Because we believe in the power of information.

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The path ahead

Equal education for girls is not only a moral imperative, but also an economic necessity – women are the foundation of any society or economy and have so much to offer. By curbing girls’ access to education, deprives them of the skills and resources needed to succeed in their communities. We need to work together to ensure that education is accessible and equitable for all girls - we must break down gender-based barriers and create an enabling environment which values and nurtures female potential. So let's do our bit this International Women's Day. Let's support women worldwide to get the access to education they deserve.


We are committed to educating and empowering women to take control of their finances and to live life on their own terms.