Women under-represented in HE, despite growth in enrolments

Women in Africa are still not moving up in the higher education system at an acceptable rate, despite statistics showing that many more girls and young women are enrolling in primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions, according to Professor Christine Phiri Mushibwe, vice-chancellor of UNICAF University, Zambia.

This discrepancy in the enrolment numbers and the number of women ending up in higher education – also in management – should not exist.

“Men are not the only embodiment of knowledge and leadership,” she said in her keynote presentation during the virtual International Women’s Day forum the Association of African Universities (AAU) and the Women in Higher Education Network organised to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March 2022. The theme was ‘Breaking the bias in African higher education: Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow’.

Citing figures from a 2020 report by the Higher Education Authority in Zambia, Mushibwe said that, looking at the enrolment figures recorded, it does not make sense that, out of a total of 1,681 academic staff in the public universities, only 429 are women. In private institutions, only 585 staff out of 2,517 are women.

Employees satisfied with women leaders

Mushibwe said that, in Zambia, more women have better qualifications, yet they are not being considered for higher positions in higher institutions. “Despite the lesser presence of women in administrative and managerial posts, research shows that there is a higher level of satisfaction among employees where women are leaders,” she said.

She expressed shock that some African women believe that men are born leaders. This emphasises the traditional view that only men can lead. “The belief that only men have knowledge, intelligence and so, men should lead for women to follow, has been institutionalised in Zambia,” Mushibwe said.

In his opening address, the General Secretary of the Association of African Universities, Professor Olusola Oyewole, said that, as the leading voice for higher education in Africa, the association cares about how biases affect the development of women in the tertiary sector.

“These biases are views and harmful activities that limit women in developing their personal abilities to pursue professions and careers, restricting them to cultural roles imposed on them in our societies,” Oyewole said.

He said that, for a very long time in history, women have pursued education, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom from gender-based violence and a good standard of living and are able to make free choices in marriage and relationships, which have been the basis of great bias against women [in the past].

Women vice-chancellors are role models

Oyewole said that, “In Africa, the girl-child is limited [when it comes] to accessing a good education, access to a good job and rising to occupy a good position. We all need to work together to change this narrative in our time.”

He said education will encourage African women to participate in economic, social and political activities as leaders and effective stakeholders. It is worrying that there are few women serving as administrators and researchers in higher education even though progress has been made over the past few years regarding the number of girls attending school.

Oyewole said to help end what has held women back in the tertiary sector, “all of us have a role to play to bring an end to gender-based biases against women and harness women’s knowledge and talents at all levels of the problem-solving channels”.

He said he was optimistic that, with more women becoming vice-chancellors at institutions across Africa, an atmosphere will be created for younger women to aspire to higher positions. The women vice-chancellors have become role models that can help break the cultural biases against women in Africa.