Universities worldwide champion UN gender initiative

A one-year pilot initiative under the United Nations HeForShe movement to engage governments, corporations and universities as instruments of change in advancing gender equality is gaining support, but challenges remain, the Going Global 2016 conference heard.

Out of 10 universities that have made transformative statements to close the gender gap, seven have made commitments to close the gap in administration and four in academia – particularly in fields where women are underrepresented – to reach 40% female representation.

Gender-based violence

Anne Githuku-Shongwe, head of UN Women in South Africa, told the British Council conference held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 3-5 May that there were also transformative commitments to end gender-based violence on campus.

Under the HeForShe movement launched in September 2014, the IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative gathers 10 heads of state, 10 universities and 10 corporate ‘champions’ to engage and encourage men and boys to take action against gender inequality. IMPACT 10x10x10 was launched at the World Economic Forum in January 2015.

The 10 universities are Leicester and Oxford in the United Kingdom, Sciences Po in France, the University of Hong Kong, Nagoya University in Japan, University of São Paulo in Brazil, the University of Waterloo in Canada, the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Stony Brook and Georgetown universities in the United States.

Partners gave updates on progress to participants from 80 countries at the British Council gathering which was held for the first time in Africa.

Changing cultures

Looking ahead to 2017 Githuku-Shongwe said universities in the HeForShe pilot were committed to finding ways to change cultures in their institutions.

She said working with men was currently recognised as the only way to “turn the corner” in terms of gender-based violence and gender parity, although the move towards inclusivity by UN Women had not been without criticism.

“After many years of working on gender equality, we find that walking this journey alone is long… We are not finding the results are as great as we expected,” she said.

Githuku-Shongwe said she was currently working on a strategy to track the results of performers and non-performers in the area of halting gender-based violence in South Africa.

Professor Paul Boyle, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Leicester, said a couple of practical changes had been identified as part of the HeForShe project.

One was closing the gap between men and women in key positions, both academic and administrative. An example of how to achieve this in an academic environment would be to analyse the quality of research rather than quantity for the purpose of promotion because women were more likely than their male counterparts to take career breaks.

Boyle said the men and women were expected to be aware of gender issues and ongoing monitoring was important in terms of gauging the impacts of programmes.

Encouraging men to take ownership

Boyle agreed that both men and women had a role to play in dealing with gender equality. It was critical to change institutional culture, “and achieving this is a real challenge. Men don’t think gender equality is about them and it’s a critical thing to change.

“In our institutions, gender equality discussions are dominated by women while men are getting on with research and other activities. The essence of this campaign is to get men to step up and take some ownership,” he said.

According to Boyle less than 25% of professors in the UK were women and he calculated that at the current rate of change, it would take about 40 years before women professor numbers matched that of male professors.

“There is no good reason why women are underrepresented in senior posts. It is clearly not a result of innate differences in intelligence or ability. Gender equality is not a matter of being nice to women. In the higher education context, it means ensuring that the very best people go into research and to the top of our institutions for the benefit of society."

Underrepresentation of African women

Professor Adam Habib, chair of peak universities body Universities South Africa and vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said that while women already constituted more than 50% of the academy, representation declined dramatically moving up the hierarchy.

African women in particular were underrepresented. “There are institutions in this country where there isn’t a single African woman professor and that is a serious indictment of our society and our higher education institutions,” he said.

Commenting on issues of sexual harassment at universities, Habib said more work needs to be done.

“I think we have a crisis in South African universities. We have made some progress in terms of addressing sexual harassment and created a more equal footing but we need to address the crisis. The positive thing is that this is now receiving a focus like never before and victims are not going to remain silent,” he said.