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Education and Skills
Policy paper
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Supporting Soft Skills in Hard Times: Gender Inequalities in Social and Emotional Skills are Holding Adolescent Girls Back

New analysis of Young Lives’ longitudinal data shows that while girls and boys exhibit similar social and emotional skills in the early years, gender differences widen during late adolescence. This leaves many young women at significant disadvantage as they begin their new working and family lives, particularly in Ethiopia and India.

Gender differences in social and emotional skills during late adolescence are most striking in skills associated with empowerment, such as self-efficacy (belief in your own capacity to achieve goals) and agency (sense of control over your own life).  Adolescent girls have significantly lower self-efficacy than boys at age 19 across all four study countries, with gender gaps persisting through to age 22 in Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam; this is despite higher educational achievement among girls in Vietnam, and girls remaining longer in school in both Ethiopia and Vietnam (by half a year, and one year, respectively).

Our evidence suggests that while educational achievement is positively associated with social and emotional skills, this does not explain the increasing gender gap in late adolescence. Social and cultural contexts are key to explaining why adolescent girls and young women develop lower social and emotional skills than boys and men, particularly in relation to gender norms and gendered social expectations.

Our new analysis shows that beliefs in more egalitarian gender roles are positively associated with higher self-efficacy and agency for both adolescent girls and boys. Poverty also exacerbates gender inequalities in social and emotional skills. Gender gaps in self-efficacy were widest among those living in the poorest households and those in rural areas. Even in Peru, where the overall gender gap had narrowed by the age of 22, young women still have significantly lower self-efficacy than young men among those living in the poorest households. Although gender differences in social and emotional skills appear in late adolescence, inequalities in a broad range of children’s skills, including social, emotional and also cognitive skills, appear at a very early age. While the negative effects of early deprivation on children’s skills development is well documented, Young Lives longitudinal data shows that supportive parenting and early education can help to build the foundation for stronger social and emotional skills. 

These findings are important for policymakers. Gender differences in social and emotional skills, though significant, are not universal or inevitable outcomes.

This policy brief highlights that

■ Improving adolescent girls’ and young women’s social and emotional skills requires targeted support, particularly to improve girls’ empowerment, which can make a real difference for well-being and later life outcomes.

■ Successful initiatives to improve women and girls’ empowerment often combine education, life skills training and mentorship; adding life skills to school curriculums is crucial for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

■ Efforts to challenge social norms that discriminate against girls and women are more likely to succeed if they engage whole communities, including boys and men, working collaboratively with local leaders and civil society