How can universities challenge gender discrimination?

In developing country universities women staff are under-represented in senior teaching and management positions. Enrolment of female undergraduates is increasing but far too few are studying science and technology subjects. Research and action are needed to identify the factors that slow or promote gender equity and identify examples of replicable good practice.

A research report from the University of London adds to the limited literature on gender discrimination in higher education by assessing progress towards gender equity in universities in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. It shows that while universities can reproduce gender inequalities, they also have potential to challenge them.

Researchers discovered a number of discriminatory practices such as excluding women from career development opportunities; prejudice against women – particularly mothers; gender-insensitive pedagogical processes; sexual harassment and gender violence; prejudice about women’s academic abilities and widespread male-domination of knowledge, decision-making and research opportunities. Barriers to women’s entry into ‘non-traditional’ subject areas such as agriculture, veterinary science, engineering and computing include poor careers advice, lack of role models, negative attitudes from families, fear of maths and fear of being in a minority.

Some universities are consciously tackling gender discrimination and have affirmative action initiatives to promote gender mainstreaming. However, in Nigeria and Tanzania there is reluctance to remedy the under-representation of women in higher education through quota programmes. Male staff and students argue that the university environment should remain ‘neutral’ and based on ability. Management is still viewed by many as incompatible with women’s lifestyles.

All five case studies reveal a highly gendered environment, which blocks women’s progress as staff and has a detrimental effect on the learning environment for students. Key findings from examining university policies, data separated by gender and interviews with staff and students indicate that:

Universities should identify themselves as alternative spaces in which to challenge violence in the wider society. Affirmative action programmes need to be expanded to provide opportunities for women from disadvantaged backgrounds and with disabilities. Higher education institutions should be encouraged to:

‘Gender Equity in Commonwealth Higher Education; Research Findings’, Gender Equity in Commonwealth Higher Education, Working paper 6, by Louise Morley 2005 Full document.
Gender Equity in Commonwealth Higher Education – further working papers Full document.

Funded by: UK Department of International Development and Carnegie Corporation of New York

id21 Research Highlight: 26 June 2006

Further Information:
Louise Morley
University of Sussex
School of Education
East Sussex BN1 9QQ, UK

Tel: +44 (0) 20 01273 876700
Fax: +44 (0) 20 01273 877534
Contact the contributor: L.Morley@sussex.ac.uk

School of Education, University of Sussex, UK

Other related links:
'Aiming high: how can women climb the academic and occupational ladders?'

'Women and management in higher education: a good practice handbook' ELDIS

'The Challenge of Women’s Higher Education in Asia', Boston College

Forum for African Women Educationalists

Views expressed on these pages are not necessarily those of DfID, IDS, id21 or other contributing institutions. Articles featured on the id21 site may be copied or quoted without restriction provided id21 and originating author(s) and institution(s) are acknowledged. Copyright © 2009 IDS. All rights reserved.

id21 is funded by the UK Department for International Development. id21 is one of a family of knowledge services at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. id21 is a www.oneworld.net partner and an affiliate of www.mediachannel.org. IDS is a charitable company, No. 877338.