University gender affirmative action – Time for a change

Despite the fact that women outnumber men at the University of Zimbabwe, there are few female engineering students. It may be time to rethink the institution’s gender affirmative action policy.

When it was first introduced at the University of Zimbabwe in 1995, the gender affirmative action policy was necessary to correct a significant gender imbalance reflected in the fact that women made up only 25% of the student intake. Twenty-two years down the line, the proportion of female students at the university now exceeds male students by 2%. Despite this fact, the University of Zimbabwe administration insists that the policy is still in operation.

According to research conducted before the policy’s implementation at the university, low enrolment of female students was caused by, among other factors, patriarchal attitudes that supported the perpetuation of gender ascribed roles – such as cooking, cleaning and washing – that saw female students finding less time to study than their male counterparts.

As a consequence of these factors combined with general societal attitudes, few female students achieved good ‘A’ level passes at school and this resulted in male students securing most of the limited places at the University of Zimbabwe, which were allocated on the basis of grades.

To address this imbalance, the affirmative action policy was introduced to allow female students to enrol with ‘A’ level cut-off points that are two points below those required for males.

Its main objective was to increase female first-year students to at least 45% of the undergraduate enrolment by the year 2000. Now 22 years after initiation of the policy, female students comprise 52% of total undergraduate enrolment at the university.

Women outperform men

Today, female students generally outperform their male counterparts at ‘A’ level. In 2015 the female candidates who sat for ‘A’ level exams nationwide achieved a 90.5% pass rate while that of males was 85.4%. Last year female students did even better, achieving a 91.6% pass rate, still ahead of the males at 86.4%.

This is not to say that patriarchy, which was cited as a reason for female students’ failure to secure marks comparable to that of males, no longer exists in Zimbabwe; rather, whatever negative effect it had on the academic performance of female students has either subsided or female students have found a way to excel in spite of it.

Whatever the case, it seems clear from these figures that it is no longer necessary to allow female students to enrol with fewer points than males because they are no longer being outperformed by their male counterparts in the final school examinations.

The gender composition of the university's student community now directly matches that of the general population in Zimbabwe as captured by the last census which has the number of female citizens at 6,738,877 (52% of total population) and that of male citizens at 6,234,931 (48% of total population).

Redundant policy

In so far as its original objective of increasing the total enrolment of female students to 45% is concerned, the gender affirmative action policy is clearly no longer necessary.

However, there are faculties in which female student enrolment remains low. One of these is engineering where there is an obscenely disproportionate number of male students in comparison to female students.

In fact, some engineering programmes have as few as one female student in classes of over 30 students.

Trying to address this imbalance through the gender affirmative action policy makes no sense. Such an approach makes the assumption that the reason there are few female students in a given faculty is because they have inferior academic results which render them incapable of competing for places with their male counterparts.

But this is clearly not the case. Students who apply for programmes in engineering are drawn from the pool of students who do science subjects at ‘A’ level and here, female students secure results that are just as good as those of their male counterparts. So the reason behind the low number of female engineering students is not about grades.

Facets of patriarchy

I suspect it is because female students are socialised by a society, still marked by facets of patriarchy, into believing that jobs emanating from engineering programmes, in fields such as electrical, mechanical and mining engineering, are more suitable for males.

Instead of pushing a gender affirmative action policy that focuses on admitting female students into engineering programmes with fewer points than their male counterparts, which is in fact no longer necessary, a new policy is required to challenge and dispel the backward idea that the engineering profession is more suitable for men.

There are many ways to do this, one of which is awareness campaigns targeting schools. Such campaigns could challenge the notion that women who are good at science should use their skills to become nurses, science teachers or doctors; such campaigns can support the notion that women can and should in fact become whatever they want to be – including engineers.

Zachariah Mushawatu is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.