Joining together to redress university gender imbalances

Meeting together, sharing experiences, finding a collective voice to tackle gender inequity in research and higher education … Siân Harris shares some themes from gender meetings in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Worldwide, research and higher education struggle with inequity between men and women. According to the latest Global Gender Gap from the World Economic Forum, there is still an average 31.4% gender gap globally, with the largest disparity in political empowerment, where there is a 75.3% gap, and economic participation and opportunity, which has a 42.2% gap (the methodology for calculating these gaps is shared from page 45 of the report).​

Globally, 39% of women and 34% of men are enrolled in higher education – but when it comes to teaching staff the picture is different; 33% of academic staff worldwide are female.

With no country having successfully closed the gender gap yet, it was not surprising that gender inequity was one of the key themes that emerged in a series of research equity dialogues that INASP and partners held in four countries in 2018 and 2019.

During every dialogue, participants agreed to form an “alliance of gender learners and doers” to support one another to affect their immediate environments , and more broadly to drive the message home to society. They agreed that the main areas of work of these individual country-based alliances would be as a collective of individual researchers, institutions and other gender networks to:

  • Engage with government to ensure that appropriate, supportive and enabling policies are in place at all levels of education for boys and girls growing up and in higher education
  • Lobby for the provision of appropriate facilities for boys and girls in schools
  • Support the training and development of teachers via their curriculum and ongoing capacity development/mentoring/awareness raising to reflect a new national policy (and consciousness) on the subject and in their ways of teaching and engagement with their students
  • Support the institutions of higher learning through advice and practically in the formulation and implementation of their gender equity plans and priorities
  • Share, enable learning and provide support within the group.

Following on from those dialogues and early agreement of gender as an important focus, over the past year, with funding from Sida, INASP has been working with two partners, Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) and Ethiopian Academy of Sciences (EAS) to explore ways to redress gender imbalances and to support gender equity champions within research and higher education in their two countries.

Context matters

When it comes to gender inequity, some themes are echoed around the world – fewer women in senior leadership positions, differences in pay, different society expectations when it comes to caring responsibilities. But gender differences are also dependent on context and history.

As INASP’s Femi Ngezwu, who is one of the facilitators of the current work with UNCST and EAS, observed in her reflections on the dialogues last year:

“I believe that history is a major contributor to today’s imbalances. Most serious and insightful scholars of gender agree that the representation of the roles and value of both men and women in African society has become distorted in the wake of the 19th – 20th century conquest of Africa by the leading states of Europe.”

She went on to point out how historical society expectations about work inside and outside the home have differed significantly between Africa and Europe and that this history influences the lens with which to look at gender roles in higher education and public life today.

National variations

And there are also differences between neighbouring countries. Uganda has achieved higher enrolment rates in primary education, with the gender gap removed at this stage of education. The latest Global Gender Gap report found that 96.9% of girls and 94.1% of boys are enrolled in primary school in the country, although, by secondary school and tertiary education, the percentages overall become much lower and the male percentages edge ahead of the female ones. However, there is a bigger gender difference in literacy rates: 70.8% for females and 82.7% for males.

In Ethiopia, the country’s greatest gender gap is in educational attainment, with Ethiopia ranking 140th out of 153 countries. Literacy levels are lower than in Uganda – 44.4% for women and 59.2% for men – and the gender gap in educational enrolment starts in primary level – 81.5% of girls and 87.7% are in primary school. By tertiary education stage, the gap widens – ​5.2% of women and 10.9% of men are enrolled in higher education, which places Ethiopia 141st in the world. Women occupy approximately 13% of academic staff positions in Ethiopia.​

On the other hand, Ethiopia currently scores higher in another aspect of gender equity: political representation, with the country coming 16th in the world in terms of gender equity in political empowerment. This could be seen reflected in the government-level buy in to the workshop that EAS and INASP convened in Addis Ababa in February.

With every country and context different, approaches to bring people together to tackle gender imbalances are also different.

For the gender meetings in Uganda, there was a strong desire to avoid centring the work only in Kampala, where UNCST is based. As a result, UNCST and INASP are convening four gender alliances. Two have already happened, in the south (Kampala) and the north (Muni), and two are scheduled to take place in March, in the east (Busitema University) and the west (Mbarara University). These regional meetings are then feeding representatives back to a small national alliance.

For the first meeting in Ethiopia, it was recognized that there are already various networks and initiatives of women within different regions and sectors of higher education and research within the country but that there was value in bringing people together to look at ways to share learning and work together. EAS therefore set up the first meeting – or learning forum – for people from across the whole country.

Learning together

In the various forms, a strong theme running through the gender meetings in the two countries is learning. In 2015, INASP and a team from the University of Dodoma in Tanzania developed the Gender Mainstreaming in Higher Education Toolkit, which is freely available for use and adaptation by anyone interested in exploring these issues. The workshops draw on this as a training resource in exploring the implications of hidden biases and gender assumptions.

In addition to learning, the groups are exploring how to work together to have a strong voice and influence policy in their institutions and nationally. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners on these discussions and sharing more as these groups mature.

Sian Harris
Siân Harris was a Communications Specialist at INASP

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