Worldwide Paradox for Women

March 15, 2011

HONG KONG -- "World Education: Dominated by Women?" That was the title of a session here at Going Global, the international education conference of the British Council, and the answers panelists offered depended on one's definition of "dominated." In terms of enrollments, speakers from several countries at this session (and in numerous sessions elsewhere here) talked about how women are a solid majority of undergraduates -- including colleges and universities in many countries where the idea of women's equity in education is relatively recent. Even in countries where male students are still in the majority, rapid gains for women suggest that the trend could be on its way to being truly global.

But the speakers here were not ready to congratulate higher education on a job well done. Rather, they focused on the lack of women in senior positions in universities (and in the non-academic work force) in many countries that long ago reached gender equity in enrollments.

"So much has changed," said Mary Stiasny, associate director of the Institute of Education at the University of London. In Britain, Australia, the United States and many developing nations, women are the majority of university students and outperform men academically as well. But why, she said, are only 10 percent of the vice chancellors of British universities (the presidential equivalent) women? "We have to look at whether there has been a real shift [toward equity] or whether it is illusory," she said.

Auhoud Said Rashid Al Bulushi, head of research at the Omani Studies Center of Sultan Qaboos University, presented an overview of the status of women at universities in the Gulf generally and her country of Oman in particular. In Oman, total enrollments across all higher education institutions are 50-50 by gender. But women made up 59 percent of graduates last year, while men made up two-thirds of dropouts. The percentage of university graduates who are female is even higher elsewhere in the region -- 66 percent in Saudi Arabia, 77 percent in the United Arab Emirates and 89 percent in Qatar.

When it comes to university leaders, however, the numbers are overwhelmingly male, and that is true for senior positions in business in her country, she said. About 60 percent of employees of higher education institutions in Oman are men, and the numbers are extremely lopsided at the senior levels, she said.

Al Bulushi credited her country's leader -- Sultan Qaboos bin Said -- for promoting women's education, mandating that schools from primary to higher education include both male and female students. She noted that he has pushed ahead on this issue even when many parents hesitated, as recently as a few decades ago, to send their girls to school. She quoted the sultan as giving a speech in which he tried to make the case for women's educational equity: "This country, in its blessed way forward, needs both men and women -- because it resembles a bird in relying on both of its wings to fly high in the horizons of the sky. How can this bird manage if one of its wings is broken? Will it be able to fly?"

So why aren't there more women in senior positions at the universities and elsewhere? Al Bulushi said that while the government has promoted equity for women in education and in work life, there have not been comparable changes in expectations about family responsibilities. "There are a lot of duties women have to do," she said.

Further, many women feel uncomfortable asking for promotions, she said, even if this is changing over time. Al Bulushi speculated that there may be a downside to having women's educational equity declared a national goal without women having pushed for change.

"Women's rights in education were given to women. Women did not fight for these rights," she said. "What comes easy may not be valued."

Su-Mei Thompson, chief executive officer of the Women's Foundation of Hong Kong, described what she called "a paradox" for women here. Women make up 54 percent of higher education enrollments, and outperform men academically from elementary school through university level education. "But who runs Hong Kong?" she asked. "Not women." She said that in academe, women hold 14 percent of senior positions and not a single presidency or vice chancellorship. Men hold 82 percent of the seats in the governing council and all 21 spots on Hong Kong's top court. Women make up only 2 percent of CEO's in Hong Kong.

Thompson said that, in Hong Kong, the success of women in higher education is cited as evidence that "the battle of the sexes is over" and only "personal choice" by women (the choice to stay home with children) leaves gaps in women's participation in society.

"I am asked all the time why there isn't a men's foundation," she said. She said that when a study came out recently about Hong Kong's hospitals facing doctor shortages in some fields, the response of some in the public was to ask why medical school slots were given to women who might leave their careers to have children -- rather than asking about how jobs might be crafted to encourage such women to continue their careers.

Schools and universities, she said, need to do more than nurture female students in academic subjects. Teachers at all levels need to encourage women to be comfortable being ambitious, being leaders, and entering fields that remain dominated by men, Thompson said. And academic and non-academic workplaces need to provide more help in child care and more support for women who leave the workforce for a period of time for family reasons and then want to re-enter. She said Western nations should pay particular attention to M.B.A. enrollments, which remain lopsidedly male at top institutions in most countries -- given that so much power goes to top business leaders.

China is a "fascinating counterpoint" to the West, Thompson said. The communist ideology of equity and the demand for human capital have countered traditional attitudes far more effectively than most Western efforts, she argued, citing poll data showing that two-thirds of college-educated women in China say that they are ambitious. Half of the 14 women on Forbes magazine's list of billionaires who made their own money (as opposed to inheriting it) made their money in China, Thompson said.

Charity Angya, vice chancellor of Benue State University, in Nigeria, described the dynamic in a country in which women have not yet achieved equity in enrollments. Nationally, women make up about 40 percent of enrollments, although that average masks relative equity in some disciplines and some parts of the country and severe inequality in other programs and parts of the country. She said that distance education, and part-time programs, both relatively new in Nigeria, appear to be particularly attractive to women and could play a key role in narrowing educational gaps.

Angya noted that women's literacy rates are still about two-thirds of those of men in Nigeria (and lag in much of sub-Saharan Africa) and that, until that gap narrows, higher education enrollments will remain uneven. At her own university, women make up less than 20 percent of faculty members in most science, technology and business fields. And she said that this will take years to change.

Vice chancellors are selected in Nigeria through a multiple-stage process in which the first step is a vote by the faculty, meaning that a woman must receive substantial support from men to have a shot at winning the top spot. The first time she ran, she lost badly, but she emerged on top of the list the next time, and then "did a lot of politicking" to get on top of the list of three given by the university's governing board to the governor, who selected her. "I'm here," she said. "Somehow men allowed me to get here."

Asked about the keys to her success, she cited her willingness to try again after being rejected the first time, and prayer.

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