International Women’s Day – Inequalities still run deep

Africa lags behind other regions in terms of gender equality regarding recruitment, retainment and the promotion of women in higher education, a report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says.

Unlike in other regions, where women have been the main beneficiaries of rapid increases in tertiary education enrolment so that there are more female students than males at undergraduate level, Sub-Saharan Africa does not reflect this trend.

Females in Africa do make up most of the undergraduate students, but are less likely to complete tertiary education than their male counterparts.

The report, titled Women in Higher Education: Has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities?, was launched on International Women’s Day on 8 March by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report says that inequalities in higher education in Africa run deep and glass ceilings are high.

Women are under-represented at senior faculty level and in higher education decision-making bodies, with persistent wage gaps.

They are heavily under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas of study – precisely fields in which job opportunities are expanding.

Academic and household work

Regardless of encouraging statistics on women’s access to higher education, women still encounter obstacles when seeking to occupy key academic positions in universities, to be involved with relevant research, and to take leadership roles.

With reference to the inequalities in female enrolment in STEM careers, the report points out that cultural structure and stereotypes have helped identify careers as female or male, therefore increasing the gap.

Globally, in more than two-thirds of countries, fewer than a quarter of the students of engineering, manufacturing and construction or information and communications technology are female.

The findings echo an earlier study that indicated that, compared with their male counterparts, African women in STEM PhD programmes had about one less paper accepted for publication during their doctoral studies, citing marital responsibilities as a key factor in reducing women’s publication productivity.

The paper, “Making it to the PhD: Gender and student performance in Sub-Saharan Africa”, was published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

This has implications for moving up the career ladder as publication metrics are important determinants of promotion in academia.

“The main disparities surrounding women’s participation in higher education in Africa are related to STEM enrolments, achieving professorships and advanced degrees, and the wage gap.

“Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these unequal scenarios women around the world face, forcing female academics worldwide, particularly those in early career stages, to step back or postpone professional duties to accommodate household and children’s chores,” says the report.

A decline in women lecturers

According to the report, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the lowest share of female lecturers in tertiary education, with a slightly decreasing trend between 1995 and 2018, while all other regions have seen an increase.

Generally, in 2018, women represented 43% of teachers in tertiary education, compared with 66% and 54% in primary and secondary education, respectively.

In South Africa, for example, with respect to universities, in 2016, only 27.5% of their professorial staff (of a total of 2,218 posts) were female.

The figure was slightly higher for associate professors, with a female representation of 39.5% (of a total of 2,131 posts).

At the senior lecturer level, women occupied 45.1% of 4,900 posts, while at the lecturer and junior lecturer levels they constituted 53.3% (out of 8,498 posts) and 56.6% (out of 1,035 posts) respectively.

Thus, while there are more women than men at lecturer levels, the same is not true for senior levels.

In South Africa, between 2012 and 2018, 44% to 45% of PhD students were female, similar to the percentage of female senior lecturers.

“From 1995 to 2018, the percentage of women in tertiary education teaching positions has increased in all regions, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, where it decreased from 26% to 24%,” notes the report.

Sexism, harassment and assault

Sexism, the report says, can negatively affect tertiary education students, not only when choosing and accessing their studies, and in their careers after graduation, but also during their studies.

Violence against women on campus, such as sexual harassment and sexual assault, is a pressing issue that must be addressed by both policymakers and higher education institutions. For example, in 2015, 70% of female students at Cairo University experienced sexual harassment.

“A valid assumption is that women, after they graduate, are also able to proceed and study for higher degrees that would enable them to occupy most academic positions in universities, be involved with relevant research, take on leadership roles, and even earn competitive and comparable wages.

“Yet, this has not been the case. The failure of universities, for instance, to recruit, retain, and promote women academics has increasingly raised attention,” says the report.

Generally, the report says that, over the past few decades, there has been a rapid increase in higher educational attainment worldwide.

Whereas there were more males than females enrolled in and graduating from tertiary education, a greater increase in women’s educational attainment over the past decades led to the convergence of female and male attainment patterns, first in most industrialised countries and then in a growing number of developing countries.

“The gender inequalities in higher education worldwide have reversed in recent decades. Women have made dramatic strides in educational attainment, being more likely than men to further their education and obtain an undergraduate and graduate degree,” notes the report.

The report calls for higher education reform, aligned with the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality, which is part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Such research provides important and timely evidence from which to develop targeted policies and programmes to address the needs of women in higher education – and to implement reforms that are genuinely inclusive and gender responsive,” says Stefania Giannini, the UNESCO assistant director general for education.

The report recommends decreased discrimination against women in education. For example, by combating stereotypes.

It also speaks to the implementation of policy interventions, such as quotas in tertiary education for students belonging to vulnerable groups, expansion of scholarships and cash transfers, as well as free access to primary education, among others, to increase the chances of today’s female generations of avoiding facing the disadvantages that their parents suffered.

Among the key recommendations directed to universities and governments are: the collection and sharing of data on female participation in higher education; implementation of diversity policies and programmes to increase women’s full participation in higher education; mentorship and empowerment of women to reach leadership positions and development of gender-sensitive orientation with professional training in gender-responsive guidance for lecturers and counsellors.

“Also, there is need to have policies that can address the prevention of and response to violence against women; initiatives and programmes to help students make informed choices, free of gender bias, about their future fields of study and career and also to develop strategies to enhance female participation in traditionally male-dominated careers, including career orientation to deconstruct false images of STEM and their biased connection to gender stereotypes,” says the report.

The report indicates that issues of complexities associated with demographic differences such as race, sexual identity, and women’s socioeconomic status, help shape women’s experiences in higher education and thus must be taken into account when assessing progress towards gender equity.

“Just as higher education institutions have diversity and inclusion access policies, they should have similar policies for women’s full professional participation in higher education.

“This would indicate that the institution is an equal opportunity employer, and that it encourages the academic development of women and minorities,” says the report.