‘Manifesto for Change’ for women in higher education

Hong Kong: zero. Japan: 2.3. India: three. Kuwait: three. Turkey: seven. UK: 14. Australia: 17. The numbers tell a story. They are the percentages of universities that have women as leaders in a range of jurisdictions around the world.

Knowledge that women are under-represented in the upper echelons of higher education is not new. But after academics from countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa shared experiences and information, they came up with an action plan for change.

On 6 March the “Manifesto for Change” was resoundingly endorsed by participants attending the session “Action for Women in Higher Education Leadership” at the Going Global 2013 conference, the culmination of a year of workshops held by the British Council in Hong Kong, Japan, Kuwait and finally Dubai, supported by new research.

The manifesto calls for actions to hold institutions to account by: including gender equity in ranking and quality indicators; transparency about the representation of women, including their participation in research – usually the stepping stone to leadership; a commitment to invest in women; and the need for more international data on and research into what is holding women back, and what enables success.

Asian experiences

Obstacles to women reaching leadership positions in East Asia have been explored in research by Louise Morley, director of the Centre of Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, UK. Her report was released at the conference.

Before the main event, a workshop for senior women was held. Experiences that had informed the East Asia research were shared with delegates from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. They, in turn, provided more evidence on the lesser status of women academics, and joined the call for change.

If women in the Middle East and North Africa felt under-represented, they found they were not alone. Professor Fanny Cheung, pro-vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told them that she was the first woman to achieve such a senior post in the institution’s 50-year history, and that there had been just three women deans.

No woman has yet held the post of vice-chancellor or president of any university in the city. “Women are seen as difficult, different and risky,” she said.

Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, shared her experience from a country that has tried to take action at a policy level to tap women’s talent, as part of its national development plan to reach high-income status by 2020. This included legislation that requires women to make up at least 30% of senior positions in the private and public sectors, including higher education.

She has implemented a policy to make sure women are considered for appointment to senior posts, and receive leadership training and support. “You have to push them. You have to call them up,” she said.

Sharifah said she now wanted to see equity included in quality indicators and national rankings, and would take this message back to Malaysia’s committee of vice-chancellors.

Reasons for lack of women leaders

Delegates from other Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries shared experiences of how women were held back despite often being more represented than men at undergraduate level.

There were multiple reasons: social and institutional expectations that they cannot lead; the need to put family responsibilities first; career breaks taken for child-raising that coincide with crucial periods for establishing careers in research; and not enjoying the same freedom to travel as men.

There were also religious moves to limit them to women-only universities and positions of subordination. The latter, the participants repeatedly said, was a misrepresentation of Islam, which valued women’s education and equal role in society.

Tanveer Naim, consultant to the OIC’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and a member of the gender advisory board of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, said women should be empowered to contribute fully to leading both education and research in OIC countries.

The 57 member states contributed just 2.1% of global research and development in 2011. “Women comprise half the intellectual potential. Countries that harness this will leap forward. Others will be left behind,” she said.

She blamed lack of education for growing fundamentalism that was excluding girls and women from basic education in some countries and limiting their opportunities in others. Elite groups, including women, had not done enough to address poverty and unequal opportunities for the majority of women.

Middle East and North Africa

Dr Nadia Zachary, minister of scientific research in Egypt and one of two women ministers in the country, said: “The world needs science and science needs women. We should not distinguish between men and women, Muslim and Christian, but focus on the talent and skills of the person.”

But since 2011, fewer women had public and influential voices in Egypt, including in politics, revising the constitution and higher education.

Professor Hala Khyami-Horani, vice-president of the University of Jordan, quoted UNESCO figures showing that women account for about half of undergraduates in Arab states, with variations ranging from less than 30% in Yemen and Mauritania to more than 60% in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

But across the board, their participation dropped off progressively in the higher academic ranks.

In Jordan, women accounted for just over half of undergraduates but 21.6% of university staff, she said, quoting 2009 figures. However, the latter still represented progress, up from 13.7% in 2000. At professor level, women's presence had increased from 1.9% to 5.7%. At lower levels their presence was greater: 33.4% of assistant professors and 51.3% of teaching assistants.

“There is a lack of role models, lack of mentors, lack of leadership training. In some cases, women lack knowledge of their rights. And they are dropping out of their careers at an early stage,” Hala said.

Reporting on a recent survey, she said that work pressure was the greatest challenge in the workplace, followed by favouritism, lack of time for scientific work and discrimination. Social obligations were the biggest obstacle outside of work.

For those who were succeeding, key enablers were good time management and being able to separate work and family matters, followed by having "a cooperative husband" and "a maid" to help in the home.

In Palestine, the pattern was similar to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): women account for 57% of students but just 2.4% of professors.

Dr Irene Hazou, vice-president for academic affairs at Bethlehem University, said the role of women in Palestinian education had to be seen in the context of the Israeli occupation – conflict could not be ignored as a key cause of women’s exclusion.

“It affects all aspects of life. We are not free to move in or out of Palestine, or within Palestine,” she said. “Women find it difficult to move through check points. A 10-minute trip takes one hour, sometimes two. This discourages families from sending women to universities, especially with the harassment by Israeli soldiers.”

The lack of graduate programmes in Palestine meant that those interested in academic careers had to go abroad to study. “That impacts on how many women can take part,” she said. Education was too often regarded merely as “something to do” for women, not a pathway to a career.

Kuwait University, meanwhile, has almost 23,000 students, 16,000 of them women. Women even dominate science subjects such as engineering and dentistry, despite rules that they must have higher grades than male peers to win a place.

But that is where the advantage for women ends, according to Professor Lamya Hayat, a biologist in the faculty of science. Once women were married they were expected to forsake academic careers.

“You are expected to be less educated than your groom. A woman has to take care of the children, everything, including the man. It is a full-time job. She runs after her job while the other one sits drinking coffee,” she said.

Professor Guisun Saglamer, a former rector of Istanbul Technical University, said women fared better in her country due to its secular republican past. There, women account for 28.5% of full professors, more than their representation in the UK, although women led only 12 out of 168 universities.

Access to childcare and supportive family networks made it easier for women to balance work and family life. “But we are facing difficulties because of the revival of Islam,” she said.

Ways forward

However, there are initiatives to raise the glass ceiling for women in the MENA region.

Women in Higher Education Elite Leaders (WHEEL) is a regional women’s network established two years ago at a meeting of the TEMPUS programme at Al Fayyoum University in Egypt. There are now 14 member universities.

“The network seeks to advance, support, develop and connect women leaders in higher education across the MENA region,” said Professor Ouidad Tebbaa, a dean at the Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Marrakech, who invited more leaders or potential leaders to join – women or men who were committed to social equity.

“Our network includes deans, vice-deans, managers, executives, academics and students from the European Union and partner states from MENA,” she said.

It has held seminars in all partner universities, and 10 have set up equal opportunity centres for leadership development, collecting and sharing data, and networking. WHEEL also operates an e-learning programme for future leaders.

What emerged in Morley’s research and the workshops was that despite cultural differences, a similar pattern of exclusion occurs across different countries, with female representation lowest in senior positions and the most prestigious institutions.

Morley quoted a case in the UK. Women there accounted for about 20% of the professoriate, but only 9% at Oxford University.

“The global academy is being characterised by innovation and hyper-modernism. It is presented as gender neutral. But underpinning it is an archaic male domination of leadership. In the UK, universities are behind the military in gendered leadership, which is shocking given that we are meant to be liberal institutions,” she said.

The manifesto was well received at the Going Global gathering in Dubai.

Obiageli Nnodu, a senior lecturer at the University of Abuja in Nigeria, said: “Women are the first contact for the dissemination of knowledge, and should be taken seriously. I am surprised that we have a very low percentage of women vice-chancellors. My vice-chancellor is a woman and I am proud of that. She has done a lot to develop the university.”

Dr Patricia Owusu-Darko, director of international affairs and collaborations at Kumasi Polytechnic in Ghana, said that in her country men would not allow women to be promoted to the most senior positions: “Over their dead bodies.”

“We should take this manifesto as a working document and put our weight behind it,” she said.