08/03/2013 07:02 GMT | Updated 06/05/2013 06:12 BST

Education Is Indispensible in Tackling Gender Inequality

As a University Chancellor I am very aware of the integral role tertiary education plays in preparing young people to contribute to their countries' development.

In the Caribbean, but not exclusively there, degree courses attract more females than males and in many emerging market countries, which include the BRIC countries, university graduates are predominately females. In Brazil, for instance, they account for almost 60% of graduates.

However, despite success in tertiary education by women, pervasive gender inequality remains perhaps one of the most harmful and pernicious issues facing emerging market countries. As the developed world faces a sixth year of depressed economic growth the performance of BRIC countries and other emerging markets in spurring global growth is as important as ever and it must be clear that they cannot ignore the potential of half their populations.

I recently attended the Emerging Markets Symposium in Oxford, a platform that brings together leaders from many spheres of government, the private sector, academe and civil society, which for the past three years has grappled with the causes and consequences of some of the major problems that affect these markets. This year the Symposium dealt with gender inequality.

It was clear from the discussions that this preponderance of females in tertiary education was not always reflected in general access to education in all emerging markets. A lack of access to education is conducive to a great waste of female talent. In addition data were presented which showed that an increased number of females with tertiary education did not find echo in the presence of females in the highest executive corporate positions.

Education plays several important roles in personal and national development, especially in ensuring a more equitable distribution of all assets. Education is special because, firstly, it cannot be removed from its owner; it cannot be sold on or repossessed and it is crucial in accumulating wealth for its owner. A second significant point is that, as the amount of education increases, the overall distribution of all assets, including land and physical capital, becomes more equitable.

If the accumulation of education in a country is low or unequal then inequality will be exacerbated in other aspects. This inequality manifests itself in many ways, including income inequality and gender inequality. Education is crucial in the battle to tackle inequality of all kinds.

Among emerging markets, Argentina performs best when it comes to the expected years of schooling for females where 17 is the norm, but many of these countries, countries that the global economy relies on, short-change half their population when it comes to education. Girls can expect just ten years of schooling in India, 11 in Turkey and China, and 13 in Colombia.

Education will give women a greater ability to contribute to the economy, it will help them set up their own businesses, climb the corporate ladder and increase their representation in politics. It also has health advantages in reducing the incidence of premature marriages and unwanted pregnancies as well as promoting social mobility. The education of girls and women has a major effect on reducing childhood mortality. The question we must now ask is how best to ensure girls get the requisite education they need and deserve.

Governments should ensure female access to all levels of education but also ensure the safety of girls when they are at school and on the way to and from school. Of course resources are limited so the state's provision will be limited too. This is why support from other sections of society, namely the private sector and civil society, are integral in tackling the problems that inhibit girls' education.

Access to the education asset is essential in tackling gender inequality and multinational corporations have a proactive role to play. A recent report highlights that the private sector's contributions to education are less than 0.1% of profits of two of the world's biggest oil companies, Exxon and Shell. The private sector benefits from an educated, skilled workforce so an effective education system is in their interests. Their support can take the form of employment, internships and mentoring that will help girls in education and the transition to work.

Civil society can also act as an instrument in getting girls equal access to education. Many organisations have been successful in building facilities and training teachers but support is needed in other areas too. The trip to and from school can be incredibly dangerous for many girls, the terrible case of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan being the most extreme example. Safety is paramount for young girls in school but so are segregated sanitary facilities, the lack of which is a widespread impediment to girls' education. Cooperation between government, the private sector and civil society is essential to address all the issues that restrict a girl's educational opportunity.

Finally, I feel strongly that one important group is often overlooked when it comes to discussing both gender inequality and education. That is religious institutions. Christianity is some parts of the world, Islam and Hinduism in others can play a leading role in advocating for gender equality, broadening access to education and changing attitudes. Over six billion of the seven billion people on earth associate themselves with a religion; therefore educational institutions and governments must work with them, rather than against them, in delivering education to all.

Education is indispensible in tackling inequality of all forms and it is in everyone's interest - emerging market governments, the developed world, the private sector and civil society - that education is accessible to all. However education of women is a necessary but not sufficient step to reducing the gender inequality that is so pervasive and inimical to development.