Human Development

What ASER 2023 reveals about the gender gap in confidence

  • Blog Post Date 06 March, 2024
  • Notes from the Field
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The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 finds that although gender gaps in school enrolment have fallen over the years, girls still lag behind in terms of access to and use of digital technologies. In this post, Suman Bhattacharjea explores factors such as patterns of social and family control over youth of each sex, expectation from girls of refraining from independent action, and availability of role models at home and school.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 included a section on the access to and use of digital technology among young people (14-18 age group). This part of the survey encompassed both self-reported questions on ownership and use of smartphones, as well as actual tasks that youth in the survey sample were asked to do using a smartphone.

There were five such tasks in all. Among these, one asked the youth to use Google Maps to figure out how long it would take to get from their current location to the district bus stand on a two- or four-wheeler.

Among all the youth who were given the digital tasks, fewer than 4 of every 10 (37%) were able to answer this one correctly – the poorest performance on any of these tasks. Moreover, this statistic hides enormous gender differences. Almost half of the males (49%) who were asked this question could use the app to figure out how long it would take to get to the district bus stand. Only half that proportion – 25% of girls – could do so.

The gender disparity gets worse. Not all youth in the ASER 2023 sample were administered these digital tasks. As part of the survey process, we asked youth whether they could bring a smartphone – their own, a family member’s, or a neighbour’s – to do these tasks. During the process of piloting the tools, we noted that using a familiar phone provided an added level of comfort and allowed youth to focus on the task at hand rather than on the device. Hence, only those youth who were able to bring a smartphone were asked to do the digital tasks. Overall, more than two-thirds of the sample could do so. But when we examine the proportion of males and females who were able to access a smartphone for the short time that it took to attempt these tasks, the gap is considerable – 73% of males could do so, compared to 62% of the females. If we assume that the youth who could not bring a smartphone had low access to the technology, and were therefore unlikely to have solved this question correctly, this means that of the overall sample, 36% of males and just 16% of females were able to use Google Maps to figure out the time it would take to reach the district bus stand.

On the other hand, when we examine other sections of ASER 2023, a very different conclusion emerges. For example, the data show that across the 28 districts that the survey reached this year, only 13.2% of sampled youth are currently not enrolled in any educational institution – a decrease from the first ASER in 2017, which found that 14.4% of youth were not enrolled.Even more remarkable is the fact that the gender gap in enrolment is continuing to narrow. Close to universal enrolment levels have been observed among younger children for some years now, but older children – especially girls – have been more of a challenge. ASER 2017 found that 16% of females in the 14-18 age group were out of school, as compared to 11.9% of males. This year, that gap has narrowed to just 0.2 percentage points.

Even more promising is the fact that most girls expressed the desire to stay within the education system and complete at least undergraduate level studies, if not more. In fact, these data show that more females in this age group aspire to continue to higher levels of education than their male counterparts.

These are very welcome trends, but they reflect a conundrum. Girls are staying in school longer, but this does not imply that they are gaining the knowledge, skills, or confidence needed to successfully negotiate their lives as adults. Other than basic reading proficiency, males outperformed females on every single assessment task. Returning to the question of the Google Maps task, what accounts for this enormous gender gap in outcomes?

We examine three dimensions of the answer to this question: familiarity with the technology, familiarity with the type of task being posed, and self confidence in attempting tasks that may be difficult or unfamiliar.

Familiarity with smartphones

At first glance it appears that youth of both sexes have the necessary exposure to the technology. As many as 95% males and 90% females reported knowing how to use a smartphone – a gap of just 5 percentage points. However, what it means to ‘know how to use a smartphone’ looks very different across males and females. For example, males were more than twice as likely to own a smartphone than females, and therefore were likely spending far more time using the device and using it for a wider variety of tasks. This conjecture is borne out in the ASER data on smartphone use: while reasonably similar proportions of male and female youth reported having used a smartphone for education-related tasks and for social media during the preceding week, males were twice as likely as females to have ever used a smartphone to access online services such as paying a bill or booking a ticket (38% males versus 19% females). Owning one’s own smartphone also enables the possibility of its unsupervised use for tasks unrelated to work or education. Again, the survey data support this conclusion: males were far more likely than females to use a smartphone for entertainment (for example, 69% of males versus 46% of females reported playing games on a smartphone in the week preceding the survey). In other words, although the overall penetration of smartphone technology in rural India has grown enormously in recent years, these results clearly show that girls have far less access to it than boys.

Familiarity with the type of task to be undertaken

Males have greater access to, control over, and independent use of smartphones in ways that form part of the pattern of overall social and family control over youth of each sex, particularly once they reach puberty. There is ample evidence that families ‘protect’ older girls and young women, keeping them ‘safe’ until they get married. Many clear examples of this emerged from the in-depth qualitative focus group discussions (FGDs) that we had with small groups of girls and boys studying in rural secondary and higher secondary classes in three districts (Dhamtari in Chhattisgarh, Sitapur in Uttar Pradesh, and Solan in Himachal Pradesh). Early in each discussion we asked how far they had travelled outside their village to get a sense of their exposure to other people, places, and ways of living and thinking. This helped us to gauge the extent to which they had agency, interpreted here as the ability to define a goal – say, go for a day trip to the nearest city with a group of friends – and act towards achieving it.

In every class we spoke to groups of girls and boys separately, and one of the earliest patterns that emerged was that in just about every group, boys had travelled further afield than girls. The difference was not only in terms of how far they had travelled, but also regarding decision-making about the trip. Boys’ travel was often more intentional: they were going to specific places with a clear, individual purpose in mind, not just to accompany family members. Girls, on the other hand, tended to have travelled much less and when they did it was usually to accompany family members, typically to visit relatives, go shopping, or visit a religious site. With most girls entirely dependent on family members (or, occasionally, on school trips) for expeditions outside their home villages, planning of travel logistics – what mode of transport to use, how long the trip will take, where to book tickets, and so on – involves a set of tasks that are usually done by the men in the family, and may therefore be hard for girls to even conceptualise, let alone implement. In this sense, the idea that such planning can be aided by using apps on a smartphone may be even more remote to them.

The confidence to attempt something new

The expectation that girls should conform to social and family norms and refrain from independent action clearly structures the lives and thoughts of many of them. How then can young women develop curiosity, critical thinking, and the courage to take risks? In an article I co-authored for ASER 2017 (Bhattacharjea and Ramanujan 2017), I noted that females not only did worse on every single assessment item than males, they also refused to even attempt the questions far more often than their male counterparts.

It is unfortunate that six years later, ASER 2023 data show the same pattern. On every single one of the 17 assessment tasks (spanning applied arithmetic, applied reading, financial calculations, and digital tasks), far more females failed to attempt the task than males. On average, the no-response rate was 8.7% among males and 13.3% among females. By far the highest no-response rate was for the Google Maps task (which was given only to youth who could bring a smartphone for the assessment): 55% of females to whom it was administered declined to attempt the task, as compared to 32% of males.

ASER 2023 survey data are not designed to answer the question of what causes the substantial misalignment between girls’ desire to study further and their extremely low levels of skills, abilities, and agency. However, what comes next after school was a topic that was explored in some depth during the FGDs. These conversations with girls currently enrolled in grades 10, 11 and 12 suggested that in many cases they were not expecting or preparing to enter the workforce in the sense of going outside of their homes to seek employment elsewhere. While they did often express a work aspiration, both in the survey as well as in these longer, less structured discussions, these seemed to reflect what they would aspire to do in some kind of ideal world rather than in real life – where their lives are tightly bound by house work, and their freedom to explore outside of the confines of the home is severely constrained by social expectations for ‘appropriate’ behaviour. In all three districts, across 33 separate FGDs, very few girls pushed back against the expectation that taking care of domestic chores was and would always be their first priority. Each one of them did these chores before and after school – and indeed the ASER survey data show a 20 percentage point difference between the proportion of girls and boys doing domestic chores every day2.

However, FGDs showed that there were huge differences across locations in terms of how girls envisioned their future, which often reflected differences in home contexts. For example, the girls in Solan came from relatively educated families. Many had parents who had completed higher secondary or college level studies. Their mothers often had at least as much education, if not more than their fathers. Even though most of their mothers were homemakers, some girls did have mothers who worked outside the home as cooks, tailors, or in offices. Their fathers worked in agriculture, or in trades such as plumbing and carpentry. These girls talked freely about their intention to work after they completed their studies: their parents expected them to stand on their own feet and earn a living. They each had multiple aspirations, and spoke unhesitatingly of becoming singers or dancers, models or fashion designers, besides the more common choices of teachers and doctors. But even in Solan, girls tended to speak of these jobs as being in addition to taking care of their homes, not instead of it. In Dhamtari, mothers’ levels of education were lower and fewer worked outside the home; these girls’ plans to go out to work were also scarcer and less varied. In Sitapur, where parental education levels were low and all the girls’ mothers were homemakers, such plans were virtually non-existent.

Many factors influence young people’s decision to join the labour force after completing their studies. As the examples above show, role models at home make an enormous difference. Obviously, the nature of the jobs available, their location, and the benefits they offer all affect these decisions, and derive from the larger economic landscape of each region. But schools, too, have a vital role to play. For girls in many parts of the country, teachers are often the only role models available. What our interactions with young people in the FGDs made clear to us is that schools rarely provide any sort of roadmap to help young people navigate the transition between school and work. There are several ways in which these pathways can be developed, many of which are envisaged in the National Education Policy (2020). These include providing exposure to different work options through vocational courses, organising exposure trips and visits from specialists across a range of employment options, and facilitating internships, among others. But perhaps most important is the need to encourage girls’ sense of agency. A good first step may be to invite them to express their opinions about where they want to go and help them think through different ways of getting there.

A version of this piece was first printed in ASER 2023.w


  1. Although ASER 2023 did not go back to the same districts covered in 2017, it covers all states and uses the same criteria for district selection. While estimates from the two rounds are not directly comparable, they do provide a reasonable idea of changes at the national level.
  2. The survey included daily shopping for the household as part of household work, and did not capture the amount of time spent on these chores – otherwise the gender gap would likely have been greater still.
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