Tackle gender dynamics to achieve equality in HE

Despite the progress made since International Women’s Day was founded 111 years ago, women and girls still suffer discrimination and violence and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges they face and threatens many of the equity gains of recent years without sufficient intervention.

That’s among the major conclusions in a new report, Gender Equality: How global universities are performing, produced by the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) in collaboration with Times Higher Education.

Despite female students outnumbering their male counterparts globally, they tend to be concentrated in areas such as the humanities, and although more women are taking up leadership positions in universities across the world, fewer than two-fifths of senior academics are women globally and fewer than a third of authors of research papers are female.

And although most universities claim to have policies and services that support women’s progress, when the Times Higher Education asked for evidence for their THE Impact Rankings, many institutions did not supply any proof, an online discussion launching the new report heard on 8 March.

The new report, published on International Women’s Day, is based on data provided by 776 institutions on their contributions towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5, which aims to achieve ‘gender equality and empowering all women and girls’. For country overviews, only those nations with 10 universities responding were included for comparisons.

Key findings

The findings conclude that the countries furthest ahead in gender equalities in higher education are not in Europe. They are Australia and New Zealand.

Several Asian countries had the highest proportions of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and a higher share of women enrolled in a STEM degree than in arts, humanities and social sciences.

African universities responding to the survey were found to be “the most equal when it comes to the shares of female students across different subject areas”, according to the report.

“Transgender rights are a new frontier in the fight for gender equality, with policies of non-discrimination against transgender people existing in 70% of reporting universities globally, but completely missing in several countries,” said the report’s executive summary.

Contrasting priorities

The online discussion between women at the forefront of the battle for gender equality in higher education showed contrasting priorities in different countries

Eileen Drew, director of the Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, stressed the need for structured support for women to assume leadership roles, while speakers from universities in Mexico, India and Kenya emphasised the need to tackle violence, including sexual violence, towards women.

Gender and sexual violence

The Kenyatta University Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment in Kenya was established in 2007 to “create awareness of the gender dynamics and issues affecting the university such as gender-based violence and sexual harassment”, said its director, Judith Waudo.

This was followed in 2021 by the Women’s Economic Empowerment Hub, which gained support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to generate a body of evidence to help advance economic empowerment of women in Kenya.

The two key issues of promoting gender equality and tackling sexual and gender-based violence are intertwined, Waudo suggested, with Kenyatta University introducing a mobile reporting app in 2020 “to address the fact that survivors often do not report incidents due to stigma, victimisation or humiliation”.

The mobile app enables students and staff to anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination, with the information being passed to the Centre for Gender Equity and Empowerment for investigation. “Users can upload evidence, view emergency numbers to contact the police and access a counselling centre, all via the fully secure app,” Waudo reported.

Public apology for ‘insufficient action’

Erika Adriana Loyo Beristáin, head of the Gender Equality Unit at the University of Guadalajara, Mexico, told the online discussion that her university issued a public apology last year “for faults it had made in the past in relation to insufficient action on gender equality and the lack of adequate processes and resources to properly support victims of gender-based abuse and discrimination”.

She said the goal was to remove all gender disparities in education and guarantee that all students acquire theoretical and practical knowledge to promote gender equality by 2030.

The university has also launched a new programme this year “for the re-education of men who have had violent behaviour in the university” and 132 staff have been trained “as first-contact points for victims”, with a detailed list of “sanctionable activities, including physical and sexual violence and harassment and abuse – including digitally, by teachers to students, or between colleagues”, she explained.

“A key lesson from the University of Guadalajara is that a successful and sustainable gender equality strategy requires a combination of targets and interventions at multiple levels. This includes a long-term vision supported by the leadership team; an official set of values and regulations that establish clear red lines of acceptable behaviour, which are then enforced through dedicated resources and a periodically reviewed strategic framework,” the online debate heard.

Zero-policy on gender harassment

Bhavani Rao, UNESCO chair in gender equality and women’s empowerment at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in India, said her institution actively tracks the progress of female students, who represented 44% of all undergraduates and postgraduates in 2019.

The university also takes “a proactive role in creating policies and structures to support the transgender community; however, their implementation faces great limitations due to broader and more complex societal issues,” she reported.

The university has “a zero-tolerance policy on gender harassment”, which states that “no student or staff will be treated any less favourably than any other on the grounds of their gender identity”.

It has also established the Centre for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality as a research-based academic institute that studies, designs and implements tools and methods for promoting gender equality and fostering women’s empowerment, with a special focus on technology and innovative methods.

There are day care centres for children of female students and staff on two of Amrita’s six campuses, as well as a transgender clinic which is open to staff, students and the public.

Rao said the university sees its support for gender equality extending to the community.

As well as producing degradable sanitary napkins from banana fibres, it has helped female agricultural labourers in 101 communities in 21 states across India, including converting 18 villages to become open defecation free by supporting women in rural communities to access government grants and teaching them how to build and maintain their own toilets.

Making progress in challenging environments

Dr Kathryn Maude, assistant professor of women and gender studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, said her private liberal arts institution is working in a very challenging environment, with economic collapse, record high inflation and the city still suffering from the aftermath of the port explosion in 2020.

But, despite that, it is making advances in gender equality and 50% of places on all its scholarship schemes must go to women.

In the true tradition of a United States-style liberal arts university, it has created five courses in gender studies that students can opt to take as a minor to the major subject they are studying.

“The key is starting small and being sustainable,” she said, “and gender and nutrition is one of the new courses being offered linked to our rural and community development research.”

Fixing the institution

Back to Ireland and Eileen Drew at Trinity College Dublin who told the online debate that it is vital that “all genders are involved in gender-equality initiatives” and that structural change to support women in leadership roles often meant “fixing the institution”.

She gave the example of only 5% of Trinity’s professoriate being female in 1984 to today’s figure of 33%, with plans to use European Union grants to take that percentage to 40%.

“Data is very important to demonstrate the evidence and drive change. If people say there is not really a problem, you must have the evidence.”

She also said that, as well top management ‘buy-in’, incentives were needed to encourage women to put themselves forward for leadership roles, such as taking work-life balance seriously for those caring for young children. “We had a hard-fought battle for core hours being 10-4pm,” she said.

The report is available here and is the first of two investigating gender equality in global universities.

It will be followed with a second in May which will include the latest data and recommendations for improving the performance of higher education institutions in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at