Creating safe, inclusive campuses

When the populist government in Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán, proposed a ban on gender studies in October – removing accreditation for a number of masters and PhD programmes without explanation – it contravened its commitments to its citizens and its multilateral partners.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The international consensus on gender equity at universities is well protected. It is enshrined, for example, in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which call on higher education institutions to demonstrate to students why the Global Goals, including SDG5, promoting gender equality, are relevant and important to their lives and careers.

Women-only professorships

The international research community is rightly joining Hungary’s academics in putting pressure on a reversal of this ideologically driven ban on gender studies. The reasons for populists’ intervention in the curriculum are complex, but they buck the trend towards greater awareness in higher education of the need to promote gender equity.

Take the Republic of Ireland, for example, which recently introduced women-only professorships on the back of recommendations by its Gender Equality Taskforce to ensure women have a greater profile in the leading roles in higher education. This is in line with similar policies in Holland and Australia, where women-only professorships have successfully promoted women to higher, if not yet equal, status in academia.

Economic and cultural circumstances impact gender equity throughout the world and efforts to promote gender equity in higher education must also take these into account.

Poverty and social exclusion can contribute to the disadvantages women studying, teaching and working at universities already face.

Throughout the Commonwealth, where women and girls continue to face discrimination with regard to education, employment, access to credit and property, these issues are well documented.

Effective solutions

These intersecting battles are making gender equity and diversity in leadership doubly hard to achieve, but successful initiatives here show that there is a spectrum of effective solutions to gender inequality.

In the South Pacific, for example, women hold fewer than 10% of the senior leadership roles and there are no women in vice-chancellor roles.

The South Pacific nations, a large group of small island developing states (SIDS), have some of the most impoverished communities in the world, where universities lack funding to boost research and teaching, but they are not short of ideas to promote women’s empowerment. They only lack resources to scale these up to their full potential.

Passionate supporters of women’s empowerment – with effective ideas to improve gender equity at every level of university organisations – are working hard to bring their universities in line with the international consensus. Dr Zakia Ali-Chand, associate dean of research of the humanities and education department at Fiji National University, is one such inspiring individual.

Dr Ali-Chand is a former president of Graduate Women Fiji, a branch of Graduate Women International (GWI), which hosts seminars and workshops dedicated to empowering women through access to equal opportunities in higher education, providing scholarships for women in areas where they are under-represented, such as STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Continuing in the vein of the work of GWI, Dr Ali-Chand now runs workshops at Fiji National University to equip women with the skills they need to overcome obstacles to furthering their careers: training women with leadership potential to apply for the roles they deserve; teaching women to network effectively and assume decision-making responsibilities, rather than delegating these responsibilities to men as dictated by cultural traditions; and enabling them to progress to middle management roles and beyond.

Career progression

The impact of limited budgets affects research capacity, restricting the number of permanent post-doctorate research roles. As a result, many women who start entry-level teaching jobs will never have the chance to continue on to more senior roles. Dr Ali-Chand wants to equip women with the confidence to apply for more permanent roles and to convert their experience and talents into career progression.

To expand these workshops and develop professional career progression plans for up to 30 women at Fiji National University every year, Dr Ali-Chand is relying on a Gender Grant provided by the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Other programmes relying on grant support include an audit of gender content in all courses at the University of the South Pacific, led by Dr Akanisi Kedrayate-Tabualevu, dean of the faculty of arts, law and education. Systemic approaches to tackling gender stereotypes and institutional sexism throughout higher education are the only way to generate sustained improvements to gender equity and support women throughout their careers.

Dr Kedrayate has also championed the university’s role in tackling sexual and gender-based violence, creating more awareness throughout the university about gender equity and sexual harassment.

Cultural attitudes

Pakistan is another nation where progress is being made towards gender equity in the legal framework, but prevailing cultural attitudes still represent obstacles in women’s academic careers.

At Sindh Madressatul Islam University, grant funding is supporting an eight-month-long programme to address the low level of awareness of women’s rights under new legislation. The programme also includes seminars helping to prevent women from becoming victims of new forms of abuse, including online and in the workplace.

Gender inequality cannot be dealt with in isolation as other intersecting issues, such as decolonisation, peace and reconciliation and poverty, are significant challenges.

Across the Commonwealth, higher education institutions are working on being safer and more inclusive environments for everyone.

Empowering women to speak from experience and address the issues that affect them – through training programmes and institutional reforms – is enabling them to contribute to the international consensus forming around gender equity. They need greater support to achieve the gender diversity in leadership and at decision-making level.

While local initiatives can fill the gaps in implementation and help to drive change, the challenge posed by the populist government in Hungary today highlights the role national governments are expected to play, and what can happen when they fall short. Governments must work with universities and others to create, sustain and protect lasting change.

Dr Joanna Newman is chief executive and secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The Association of Commonwealth Universities has more than 500 member institutions in 53 nations worldwide.