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The gender ratio in Ethiopia is 99 men to 100 women signifying the importance women should be unequivocally accorded in the society. Increasing national efforts since the middle of the 1990s have been geared towards the creation of policy and operational frameworks that address the prevalent gaps and challenges to achieving parity.

In addition to the National Constitution (1995) that offers equal rights to women, sector-wide policies and structural arrangements have been developed to ensure women’s progress in society. Initiatives within the education sector, for instance, include the establishment of the Gender Directorate of the Ministry of Education, the National Girls’ Education Advisory Committee, the National Higher Education Institutions’ Gender Forum and Gender Offices set up at the various institutions of higher learning.

Nonetheless, improvements in female representation have not been substantial due to a raft of cultural, historical, religious and socioeconomic reasons that continue to impede progress in this area. The underrepresentation of women in higher education has been particularly pervasive in the areas of teaching, research and leadership.

Facts and figures

Some progress has been made with regard to the number of female faculty, but the higher education sector still remains one of the areas where significant gender disparity exists. Only 13.6% of the existing academic staff (3,0631) in the Ethiopian higher education sector is female (MoE, 2017). The Education Sector Development Program, ESDP V (2015/16-2019/20) aims at raising the representation of female staff to 25% by 2019/20 but this does not look achievable given the current pipeline.

The underrepresentation of female staff follows a similar pattern when further disaggregated by qualification, programs and field of studies. Among the public university staff at bachelor’s level women instructors represent only 24%. Their share drops to 12% at master’s level and goes down to 8% at PhD level. Out of the 6,599 staff found in Engineering and Technology faculties of public universities only 545 (8.25%) are women. There are 286 (7.4%) women in natural and computational sciences; 601 (15%) in medicine and health sciences; 255 (11.2%) in agricultural and life sciences; 241 (9.8%) in business and economics; and 588 (11.1%) in social sciences and humanities.

Research is another area where the participation of women needs to be increased. Compared to their male counterparts, only a limited number of women instructors are actively involved in research and publication due to the various challenges. The share of women who participate in research and development activities has improved over the last decade, but their overall proportion to male researchers still remains the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). According to Ethiopia’s Science and Technology Indicators Report (2014), women researchers—that includes those in universities—represent less than a quarter (23%) of the entire research personnel in the country. The UNESCO Science Report towards 2030 (2015), on the other hand, places the figure further down at 13% putting Ethiopia at the bottom of SSA countries, only above Togo (10.2%).

Leadership is another area where the representation of women remains dismally low. Currently no woman sits at the helm of any of the 46 public higher education institutions distributed across the country, although around a dozen are serving as vice presidents of the research or the business wings of the universities. Similarly, women are only minimally represented on university boards, if at all.

In ESDP V the government plans to raise female representation in middle and lower management positions at public universities from the current 5% to 30% and female representation at the level of university boards to 25% by the end of 2019/20, but this appears to be too ambitious given the normal course of action.


New hopes?

Recent developments in the political sphere have raised hopes of seeing more women represented in important areas of engagement and leadership positions in Ethiopia. Women now hold 37 percent of Ethiopia’s parliamentary seats; in a recent unprecedented and historic move the country’s first ever female president has been elected; and half of Ethiopia’s cabinet is filled by women, including the new Minister of Science and Higher Education, an academic and former vice president of the country’s flagship institution, Addis Ababa University. There are indications that the new minister is pushing for transformative changes within HEIs to ensure that higher education serves as a grooming ground for improving the position of women in the future. One of her bold plans is to pursue the equal representation of women on boards and in top leadership positions of existing public universities.

Attracting more women into the academic sphere and national leadership positions may require extraordinary moves to hasten the journey towards parity, notwithstanding the risk of being labeled ‘sexist’, ‘discriminatory’ and at odds with the professionalization of leadership envisaged in the new Education Development Road Map (2018-2030). Sustained improvements to gender equity, however, depend not only on increasing the number of women in key positions, but also on systematically addressing the root causes of inequity such as the underrepresentation of women as students and instructors, lack of eligible and willing women candidates, and limited institutional support to encourage women to advance their positions within HEIs and beyond. Challenges like balancing work and family life, lack of senior role models, marginalization, etc. that women wrestle with should be addressed in a meaningful way so that women can take up leadership positions or stay in their positions after being elected.

As a starting point, an in-depth enquiry should be made into why, despite some gains over the last few decades, gender parity still remains an elusive goal in Ethiopia and particularly in HEIs. Combating gender inequality in higher education requires a diverse set of interventions and concerted efforts to improve the structure and features of the workplace in a manner that levels the playing field and facilitates the sustainable growth and active participation of women in Ethiopia’s development efforts. Addressing this lofty goal and recognizing the factors that limit women’s professional progression cannot be left to  newly-appointed women ministers but taken up as a prime commitment for the entire system and society as a whole.



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