The meeting between Michelle Obama and Akie Abe in Tokyo earlier this year was billed as a partnership to educate the 62 million girls around the globe who are not in school for one reason or another. Lost in the media coverage, however, is that in higher education at least the picture is entirely different.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the share of young women enrolled in college immediately after high school increased from 63 percent in 1994 to 71 percent in 2012. In contrast, the percent of men in the same period remained unchanged at 61 percent.

Hispanics showed a similar pattern. In 1994, about half of men and women enrolled in higher education. But nearly two decades later, women outpaced the men by 13 percentage points. For blacks, in 1994 more men than women enrolled in college immediately after high school. By 2012, the share of men remained the same, while the share of women grew by 12 percentage points.

The female domination of higher education exists across all types of colleges and universities. The closest to equal division between male and female students is found in public universities, but Utah is the only state with more males than females in these institutions.

College graduation rates have continued to improve around the world during the protracted recession. In more developed countries, the percentage of adults with the equivalent of a college degree rose to more than 30 percent at last count. The U.S. ranked No. 1, with more than 40 percent. It is also the largest spender on tertiary education, with about 2.6 percent of gross domestic product earmarked for that purpose.

Japan spends only 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product on tertiary education, which puts it on a par with the OECD’s average. But the percentage of its population with a tertiary education is 14 percentage points higher than the OECD’s average. It also posts an impressive high school graduation rate of 96 percent, the second best among all nations. Yet Japan allocates just 5.2 percent of gross domestic product to education overall.

What all this data underscores is the importance of avoiding generalizations about the gender gap. It is certainly real, but it is also largely an issue affecting Third World countries, where culture and tradition relegate females to second-class status from cradle to grave. Although the international initiative called “Let Girls Learn” is a step in the right direction, it is highly unlikely to change the life prospects for most females.

If that were not the case, female genital mutilation and forced early marriages would have been abolished long ago. The reality is that tradition is fiercely resistant to change. Shaming nations for barbaric practices has not worked so far. Whether America’s 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers and Japan’s community approach can make a difference by banding together to develop local education programs is questionable.

Iraq serves as a case in point. In 2012, Iraq passed its first law against human trafficking. But the law is still widely ignored. Young girls who should be in school are instead forced into prostitution. In a country where victims of sex crimes are considered outcasts, they can be killed for “dishonoring” their family or their community.

In 2005, Iraq’s new constitution attempted to restore rights to women. But in October 2013, a bill based on Shiite jurisprudence proposed legalizing marriage for girls as young as nine. The dormant bill considers females essentially as sexual tools for the pleasure of men.

In light of similar atrocities against children in other countries, those who want girls to get the education they deserve face a Sisyphean task. It’s going to take more than moral righteousness alone to realize the goal.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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