How to get more women into engineering at university

The African philosopher and educationalist James Aggrey (1875-1927) stated that if you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family, indeed a nation. This statement suggests that the education of women is significant to the development of Africa.

Though African men contribute to development, African women carry a heavier portion of the continent’s underdevelopment burden in the fields of health and childcare; agriculture; and food production, processing and preservation. For instance, invariably, African rural communities have no access to pipe-borne water systems and non-fossil fuel. It is the lot of African women to travel long distances to fetch water and firewood for household consumption.

Enrolment statistics indicate that African women are underrepresented in university engineering programmes across the African continent. For example, at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, while marginal progress has been made in female enrolment in the engineering programme, the percentage of male enrolment is about 90%.

Similarly, at one of the oldest African universities, Makerere University, Uganda, 2,160 students enrolled in the engineering programmes in the 2009-10 academic year. Among them, only 22% were women.

At the University of Rwanda, the percentage of women enrolled in engineering programmes in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 academic years was 20% and 19% respectively. The University of Mines and Technology, Ghana, matriculated 503 undergraduate students in the 2014-15 academic year. The proportion of women was only 16%. In the previous year, it was almost 20%. On average, the percentage of matriculated female students of that university hovers around 15%-20%.

The underrepresentation of women in university engineering programmes in Africa cannot be attributed to a lack of interest, ability or intellectual capacity. Instead, a traditional presentation of science and mathematics as a male domain; societal cultural practices that prioritise the education of men over that of women; and an unsupportive science and mathematics teaching environment in secondary school contribute to the paucity of African women studying engineering in African universities.

Thus, it is palpably an issue of social injustice, involving an unfair distribution of engineering education opportunities.

Gender parity or equity?

Most African universities publish enrolment statistics showing the percentage of women and men. The University of Cape Coast, Ghana, is an obvious case. It publishes its enrolment statistics, displaying the year and the corresponding gender distribution. In the 1962-63 academic year, for example, a total of 155 students were recorded, with only 8% women. In 2011-12, by contrast, the proportion of female enrolment was 33%.

Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya, has also improved its female enrolment from 14% in 2012-13 to 29% in 2013-14. So did University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, which increased its female enrolment in 2015-16 to about 38% compared to 27% the previous year.

Other African universities have posted similar improvements in their enrolment of women. Though these statistics are a useful tool to monitor the access of women to university, they do not show the programmes in which women enrol, in particular engineering. This is equally relevant for South African universities, which have achieved an average of 53% female enrolment.

It appears that most African universities have focused more on gender parity, to the neglect of gender equity, which looks at gender access and distribution per academic programme.

Social justice strategies: what can be done?

Some African universities have implemented four strategies of affirmative action to boost women’s enrolments in their engineering programmes:
  • Admission quotas: a percentage of study places in engineering programmes are specifically allocated to women. A common variation of this strategy is to offer admission to prospective female students almost meeting entrance requirements. While empirical evidence from the University of Ghana and the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, supports the viability of this strategy, it has been criticised for lowering academic standards and giving preferential treatment to female candidates. Regrettably, in most cases, female students admitted under this policy strategy are not provided the academic support they need to succeed in their chosen engineering programmes.

  • Priority consideration: qualified female candidates are given priority over their male counterparts. It is a simple strategy to implement, since it does not require any elaborate planning. Many African universities, notably the University of Mines and Technology, Ghana, and others, have implemented this policy strategy with tremendous success. But the problem is that it does not concern itself with how female candidates originally attained the necessary qualifications for admission.

  • Academic upgrading: a variant of this policy is that female candidates with credits close to the required admission standards are offered admission based on their willingness to participate in, and pass, an academic upgrading programme. Despite its merits, it focuses exclusively on knowledge acquisition and skills development, not on confidence building.

  • Conditional admission: female candidates who have achieved what are considered reasonable marks are offered admission contingent upon their ability to attain specified marks in their first-year courses. For example, female candidates who have achieved 75% in their mathematics grade may be offered admission into engineering programmes on the requirement that they obtain 70% or better in their first-year mathematics courses. This strategy tends to exert too much pressure on female candidates to satisfy the condition.
A way forward

Affirmative action strategies of quota admission, priority consideration, academic upgrading and conditional admission are all important for addressing the underrepresentation of women in engineering programmes in African universities.

However, they do not make any dent in the fundamental causes of gender disparity in engineering enrolment. Two major factors, namely girls’ enrolment in upper secondary school, and the difficulties of girls studying science and mathematics at that level, must be addressed.

African universities should not stand aloof while gender disparity worsens. They should engage in strong advocacy for girls’ education and let their voices be heard as development partners.

Upper secondary school is the major source of students to undergraduate engineering programmes. Only a few girls do well in courses that enable them to apply to these programmes, owing to an unsupportive classroom environment; teachers’ use of referents outside of girls’ daily experiences; a strong preference for boy students; and a patriarchal image of science and mathematics in society.

African universities could influence the number of secondary school girls opting for engineering programmes by designing and teaching science, mathematics and technology programmes specifically for girls as part of their community outreach programmes. Such interventions aim at helping girls to develop interests, skills and confidence in those areas.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educational policy consultant based in Toronto, Canada. Email: Catherine Effah is consultant for the State Enterprises Commission, Ghana. Email: This article first appeared in the current issue of International Higher Education.

Photo credit: University of Cape Town