Literacy

Sex and Gender-based Analysis of this topic

Definition
Literacy is the ability to understand and use printed information to function in society, achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential [1]. Some literacy definitions also account for functional knowledge in computers, economies, technology, media and other aspects of Western life. Canada participates in the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS), which measures three components of literacy (i.e., prose literacy, document literacy, and numeracy) on a five-level scale, where level three represents a minimum threshold of literacy needed to meet the demand for skills in the modern economy [2]. Education does not directly confer literacy, though literacy tends to increase with educational attainment. Thus, literacy plays a significant role in women’s health, linked through education as a key factor to improved employment and income. Poor literacy is associated with unhealthy lifestyle habits, morbidity and mortality, low birth weights, teen pregnancies, accidents and a wide range of preventable diseases [3].
 
 
Sex Issues
Girls tend to out-perform boys in reading, while boys out-perform girls in mathematics. However, the gap in the scores between girls and boys is much larger in reading than it is in mathematics [4]. In Canada, as in several other nations, women tend to have higher prose literacy than men, whereas men perform better in numeracy and document literacy (i.e., using information contained in various formats, such as charts and tables) [5]. On average, women show a slight advantage in literacy over men.  In 2003, 47.9% of working aged women (16 to 65 years) and 52.1% of men did not meet the minimum prose literacy level required to cope with everyday life and work [6].
 
 
Gender Issues

Although women tend to have higher literacy levels than men, women may experience more barriers to maintaining literacy and meeting new literacy challenges. The ‘new economy’, characterized by growth in communication and information industries, is highly dependent on workers with computer skills [7]. Although computer literacy is generally lower among females than males, this may be attributable to women’s more limited access to and support for training in computer skills. In a Manitoba study, young women reported a lack of opportunities to maintain their basic reading and comprehension skills and fewer opportunities to improve computer literacy, often because of child-rearing and other domestic responsibilities [7]. Computer literacy has significant implications for women. Without computer skills, many jobs ranging from low-paying call centre positions to higher-paying engineering, graphic design and web design professions are unavailable to women [7]. Further, consumer health information is increasingly available on the Internet, however, high-level literacy is generally needed to access it. 

Lower literacy levels in older women may reflect past attitudes of the lesser importance of women’s education, when women’s roles did not require advanced education, nor high literacy [8]. As senior women are more likely to live alone, low literacy levels among senior women are a concern if they cannot manage literacy tasks.

 
 
Diversity

Despite the fact that many immigrants to Canada are highly educated, those whose mother tongue is neither French nor English tend to demonstrate low literacy on Canadian tests [5, 6]. Canada's Aboriginal people have even lower levels of literacy that are often compounded by poverty, poor health, and high unemployment and crime rates [9]. 

Senior women are much more likely than younger women and slightly more likely than senior men to have low literacy [10]. Some literacy skills are lost over time, depending upon one’s level of schooling. Literacy tends to decline with age for individuals with education levels above secondary school, but there is little loss of very basic literacy skills with age [2]. Not surprisingly, computer use among women is highest in younger age groups. In 2003, 94% of women aged 15 to 24, 84% of women aged 25 to 44, 63% of women aged 45 to 64, and only 14% of senior women reported using the Internet within the previous year [10].

 
 
Critique
Literacy data in Canada is limited and not reported by province and sex. Although the completion of grade 9 is a commonly accepted standard of basic functional literacy in Canada [11], data on grade 9 completion are unavailable. Although some literacy data are available for recent Canadian immigrants, data comparing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations are unavailable. Greater efforts must be made to understand literacy in relation to education, poverty, unemployment and other dilemmas affecting the health and well-being of many Aboriginal people in Canada [8]. More culturally-sensitive measures of literacy may more accurately portray the literacy of Aboriginal Canadians.
 
 
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health determinants > literacy