Why the anomaly in women’s representation in private HE?

The participation rate of females in the Ethiopian higher education sector has been improving over the past decade in the public and private sectors – but with important differences between the two.

While the average rate of female enrolment in the higher education sector, particularly in the public sector, still needs to change substantially, the participation rate of female students in private higher education institutions (PHEIs) is quite encouraging.

Status quo

The most recent statistics from the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Higher Education (now the Ministry of Education), dating back to 2021, shows that the share of female students in regular undergraduate degree programmes, both in government and non-government institutions, for the years 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 was 40.4%, 36.8% and 36.0%, respectively.

When government institutions are considered separately, the percentage of regular female students was 36.0%, 36.8% and 36.2% for the aforementioned consecutive years.

In non-government or private higher education institutions, the female share for the same years was larger, with 48%, 51.2%, and 57.7%, respectively.

The pattern at masters level is similar, with better female representation in the private sector. There are no PHEIs that offer PhD programmes, hence any participation at this level is fully covered by public institutions.

The share of regular female students enrolled in masters degree programmes of both government and non-government institutions combined for the same years was 22.1% in 2017-18, 22.5% in 2018-19, and 25.7% in 2019-20.

In government institutions only, the share of regular female students in the same years was 18.7%, 19.2% and 20.2%, respectively.

On the other hand, regular female students’ share at masters level was more than double in non-governmental or private higher education institutions, with 39.7% in 2017-18, 36.9% in 2018-19, and 45.5% in 2019-20.

What are the reasons for the differences?

The universities are constantly embroiled in ethnic tensions. Conflicts, coupled with the interruption of classes, are preventing many families from sending their daughters to institutions located outside of the capital and major cities of the regions.

The availability of humanities and social sciences as fields of study, which are abundantly offered at PHEIs, may be another reason that makes these institutions attractive to the students.

Students often get their first choice of fields of study at PHEIs, unlike the public sector, where this may not be always the case, due to the limited spaces they have.

Often, female students who are assigned to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in public universities change their fields of study to move to PHEIs or attend parallel degree courses to broaden their employment opportunities.

The comparable and-or increasing quality of education offered at few private institutions is another possible reason for many female students to join these universities in droves. Most of these institutions continue to graduate more than 55% of female students each year.

The overall pattern of female student participation in PHEIs is perhaps an indication of the contributions these institutions are making towards bridging the gender gap in the higher education sector where girls have always been disadvantaged, owing to a variety of societal and economic problems.

Despite this encouraging development, PHEIs appear to be left far behind their public counterparts when it comes to the sheer number of female teaching staff they have and the leadership positions women assume at different levels of their governance structure.

Female academic staff

The overall female staff representation in Ethiopian institutions of higher learning remains meagre, despite a steady growth over the past decade.

In the years 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, the total number of academic staff in the sector was 35,289, 44,626 and 53,356, respectively. During the same time, female staff were 4,716 (13.4%), 7,109 (15.9%) and 11,158 (20.8%) respectively.

The total number of female staff in the public sector in the aforementioned years was 4,349, 6,067, 10,072, respectively, while that of the private sector’s contribution was only 367, 1,042, and 1,086, in that order.

This under-representation in the private higher education sector becomes more acute at the levels of leadership positions assumed by females.

Representation at top leadership positions

Although data changes frequently and cannot be fully reliable, female representation at the university board and at the level of president or vice-president of Ethiopian institutions of higher learning leaves much to be desired. At a national level, the share of female representation at board level grew from 14% in 2017-18 to 30.7% in 2019-20.

However, the figure for private universities is a dismal zero, indicating the total absence of female participation represented on boards.

Another position worth looking at is women representation at the level of university presidents or vice-presidents.

In the years 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, the largest share of females at top management level in 45 public and four private universities, was 10.5%, 12.4% and 11.4%, respectively.

The share of female presidents or vice-presidents in government universities in the suggested three years was 9.6%, 11.4%, and 10.6%, respectively. Unfortunately, there were no female leaders in the private universities for the same years considered.

Leadership positions

The middle-level academic leadership positions in the sector include titles such as scientific director, vice-scientific director, executive director, managing director, programme director, dean, vice-dean, directorate and other equivalent positions.

Female participation at this level in the years 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 was increasing, but remained very low across the sector. The share was 8.3%, 10.1%, and 15% in the suggested three years, respectively.

However, despite the presence of leaders at this level, the share of female leaders serving at middle-level positions in the private sector is still limited.

Administrative leadership positions include titles such as general director, deputy director, unit head or team leader and coordinator of administrative offices such as human resources, finance, procurement, and so on.

In the academic years of 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, there were 35.8%, 36.7%, and 38.1% of females assuming these positions.

The share of females’ participation in the leadership position of administrative offices at public universities was much better than those in the academic wing.

However, this does not happen to be the case in private universities. The share in the privates in 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 was 10.3%, 9.5% and 9.7%, respectively.

Addressing the anomaly

The current level of women’s participation in the Ethiopian higher education sector indicates that, while there are an increasing number of female students who choose to study at PHEIs, the latter appear to have an environment in which the number of females involved in teaching and leadership positions is either meagre or non-existent.

Understanding the causes of and addressing this anomaly is requisite for PHEIs, if they wish to meet the expectations of their female students.

The change witnessed at public universities is an outcome of the deliberate measures taken by these institutions in terms of setting proper policies and practices in place towards improved female representation.

In fact, efforts at public universities have been assisted by the government’s sectoral plans and the development and implementation of specific strategies on improving the composition of university boards and top leadership through greater representation of women.

The figures for the private sector, however, show a corresponding lack of awareness and the absence of similar initiatives in the recruitment and representation of female staff at various leadership positions.

This failure can pose a variety of challenges to female students who choose to join PHEIs by depriving them of the support that they need from female role models to combat the gender biases, institutional barriers and negative stereotypes they face across a wide swathe of their academic and professional lives.

Though it should not be exclusively sought from women alone, forming leadership identities, mentoring career guidance and support, and strategies for overcoming gendered barriers demand the availability of female role models to support female advancement.

In fact, the role of women role models in inspiring girls to be more ambitious, to advance against existing barriers, to successfully balance work and family responsibilities, and combat stereotyped attitudes toward women’s leadership cannot be overemphasised.

PHEIs should, hence, develop the right strategies to address this gap. They should particularly build a gender-balanced environment by making their organisational set up more representative of the gender composition of their students.

Government and other stakeholders should also be involved in encouraging, guiding and supporting these institutions to improve the under-representation of women in teaching and at all levels of their leadership positions.

Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States; and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at or This is a commentary.