Addressing gender issues in Ethiopian higher education and research institutions – stories from Ethiopian gender champions (part two)

With the mission to promote gender equity in Ethiopia’s higher education and research institutions, the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences and INASP launched the Ethiopian Gender Learning Forum in February 2020. The establishment of this forum is part of the Global Platforms for Equitable Knowledge Ecosystems (GPEKE) programme (funded by Sida).
This forum brings together representatives (called gender champions) from 29 higher education and research institutions from across Ethiopia to discuss and reflect on gender-related issues in the country related to their work and research, and to find solutions to the problems they identify.

According to the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, only 5.3% of women are enrolled in higher education in Ethiopia compared with 10.9% of men (1). The gender gap becomes even larger when looking at leadership, where in 2019-2020 women held only 10.6% of executive management positions across the 45 public universities in Ethiopia, and made up less than 5% of deans and 3% of department heads (2).

We talked to some of the many gender champions of the Ethiopian Gender Learning Forum to tell us about the gender issues and gaps they see in Ethiopia and how they hope the forum can help address these. As we have many stories to share, this blog is the second of two parts. To read part one, click here.

Yezbie Kassa, lecturer at University of Gondar and president of the National Network for Women Leaders and Teachers

“In Ethiopia, the society and the cultural situation is very male-biased, so that most of the time, from the very beginning, we women are under the influence of or challenged by society, colleagues, even by official policies. Women engage with a lot of challenges in every aspect of their lives.

These challenges are not only in our country; they are everywhere. But the ways we cope, the ways we try to cope, might be very different. So what I learned from these kinds of networking meetings is that there are different ways of removing these challenges, as long as we work hard.

Working independently is not fruitful. There are a lot of organisations, associations, groups or networks who are doing their own thing, but are not magnified. So if all those small groups who are working on their own come up together and work collaboratively, the work is then amplified and will get a better result and the issue has a chance to be solved. When we work collaboratively with institutions like the Ethiopian Science Academy and INASP, as an umbrella or as a consortium, the effect of all these small groups will be more pronounced.”

Odomaro Mubangizi, Institute of Philosophy and Theology, affiliated with Urbaniana University, Rome

“I am originally from Uganda, which is quite a way ahead of some other countries, especially Ethiopia, in terms of mainstreaming gender issues. Uganda started mainstreaming gender way back in 1986 at the political level, in terms of public service, and then later into the ‘90s, within the universities. The university set up a whole department of gender studies in Makerere University, and later the government set up a Minister of Youth, Women and Gender. However, both societies do struggle with questions of gender equality; both are strongly patriarchal and the role of women in society is a work in progress in both countries.

Uganda has already achieved considerable gender parity in schools, even in government. There is a positive attitude to women in parliament, and in leadership; within each district there is a woman member of parliament, and people are not surprised – they welcome it. There has been quite a bit of change in attitudes, although in some rural areas attitudes haven’t changed much.

My institution is a private and faith-based institution, so the majority of students are males, many of whom are studying to serve in the church, although there are also some women students. The men and women study together. The women are seen to be a little less confident, but they are given opportunities to study courses such as philosophy and theology that are traditionally dominated by males, given the structure of the church. And to be given this space is a good start. In terms staff, out of about 30 professors almost a quarter are women, which is good for mentorship; the female students are set a good example by the female lecturers, and even the men have a more positive attitude to the women. Nevertheless, women are still a minority within the institution.

The women who study at our Catholic institution lead religious lives, but they cannot be ordained as a priest. And sometimes these issues come up in class – the question of whether or not women should be ordained. Some of the women just say, “No, no, no, no, this is exclusively for men”. The debate is opening up, especially for some roles – not necessarily ordination but in ministry, in preaching – yet many women still have a traditional view of the role of women in the church.

Gender champions engaged in discussions

Gender champions engaged in discussions

At my institution there are some scholarships set aside to help women students who would otherwise not have enough resources, which is one small step towards gender equity. We also allow women to come and teach, thus providing mentorship to our female students. When we hold conferences and lectures and symposia, we consciously create a gender balance by having both men and women presenting papers, and that’s our small effort towards the cause –  we hope that helps to bridge that gender gap. It is well known that the Catholic church is rather patriarchal, but we have some female theologians who promote gender equity here and within Africa as a whole. That movement is not as advanced here as in other countries, but it is beginning.

This awareness of gender equality issues, the high prominence given to women in research, and teaching, and networking, really excites me. I am also pleased to hear that private institutions can be part of this [Ethiopian gender] forum. So I look forward to making a contribution, and at the individual level, some of the lecturers and professors – especially the women – will be using this opportunity to network and to amplify their voices.

Being here as men , I and a few other colleagues were laughing and said that, “we now know how it feels when women are a minority in a male-dominated framework!” I’ve been excited to hear about the different approaches that women take to solving problems; the dynamics of engagement and their creativity – their artistic way of addressing issues. I think that more men will learn and will benefit from this engagement together, this collaborative effort. The best way to overcome unconscious gender biases is to engage and take part in a platform and a forum such as this.

I look forward to the concrete structure that will help take this agenda forward and to having many more fora that will continue to bring men and women together on this platform.”

Addisalem Yallew, PhD student in higher education studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa

“My colleagues and I are working with CODESRIA, the social sciences research council for Africa, and we’ve recently been given a small grant to investigate intellectual cultures in selected African research universities. We are looking at whether there are any gendered aspects of intellectual culture that affect the participation of women, because from the data we can clearly see that women are highly underrepresented in research. We’re investigating factors such as access to funding, collaborations, access to information, and collegial support, to ask whether there are any specific intellectual culture dimensions that may affect the participation of women in research.

Gender champion Dr. Asnakech Demise giving a presentation at the EGLF launch event

Gender champion Dr. Asnakech Demise giving a presentation at the Ethiopian Gender Learning Forum launch event

Before becoming a PhD student, I taught at Hawassa University in southern Ethiopia for more than eight years. The challenges that you see in society are present within the universities as well. There are many biases in higher education. For example, sometimes even having access to information might be gendered in some ways. Sometimes your being there in the university space as an assertive female scholar may not go down well with other colleagues – this may be conscious, but a lot of the time the bias is unconscious. But women have to struggle with it every day.

For example, women might encounter challenges related to, for instance, promotion. Sometimes vacancies are advertised and women are encouraged to apply, but then when you actually apply for those vacancies all sorts of hurdles are put in your way. Sometimes you even get harassed, or catcalled, not only by colleagues, but even by students. And when you are young the challenges are even more visible. Just your day-to-activity becomes a kind of challenge. It makes you constantly self-aware that you’re a woman.

A lot of the challenges are just human, and because we don’t have perfect systems. There are also global challenges, because of the neo-liberal nature of the university space; the metrics-, competition-oriented culture. You have to compete for resources and rather than collaborating – even as a postgraduate student – you have to compete with your colleagues. So there is that, but being a woman adds even more challenges, because historically universities are very patriarchal, and that has not changed.

Leadership-wise, at least in some universities, there seems to be commitment to promoting women, to creating more equitable university spaces, but this is usually only on paper. The actual, real commitment is usually missing. When you go deeper into the commitment that leaders have in terms of transforming universities, a lot is lacking. A lot of them still think that a woman’s place is not in the university space – a woman’s place is somewhere else. I’m not married and I don’t have kids, so this work–life balance is not an issue for me, but for a lot of women that is also an issue, and universities in Ethiopia do not provide the support that professional women need in order to have a successful career.

As an early-career researcher, equity, diversity, and inclusivity in universities is one of the issues that I would like to pursue in my future research, particularly with regard to gender. I have a personal interest in investigating these issues.”

I just want to say thank you to INASP and the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences for organising this. It has been very informative and insightful.

(1) 1 World Economic Forum, (2021). Global Gender Gap Report 2021.

(2) Times Higher Education and the UNESCO International Institute of Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) (2022). Gender Equality: How Global Universities Are Performing, Part 2.

INASP

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