Report Grades Universities on Gender Equity Efforts

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Marking the 111th International Women’s Day, new research from Times Higher Education (THE) and the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) attempts to take the measure of efforts by global universities to advance gender equity. And the report card that emerges is decidedly mixed.

The study, Gender Equality: How Global Universities Are Performing, found that, while a large share of universities reported that they have implemented policies to support progress of women, a far smaller percentage were able to supply specific evidence about those policies. The study also reveals significant geographical differences in commitments to gender equity, and persistent underrepresentation of women in senior academic positions and paper authorship.

The report does note that the number of enrolled students slightly favors women over men. But the data also point to an apparent “humanities bias,” with substantially higher percentages of women pursuing degrees in medicine and arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) than in the so-called STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Of students, research and policy

The framework for the THE-IESALC study springs from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and specifically SDG 5—“achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.” The researchers looked at data voluntarily provided by 776 academic institutions worldwide in 2021 on their contributions toward meeting SDG 5 goals, as measured by specific indicators laid down by the UN. Their analysis broke down those indicators into three areas: students; research and academics; and university-wide policies and services advancing gender equity.

On the student side, the 776 universities reported that an average of 54% of students awarded a degree in 2019 were female. But the distribution of degrees was heavily skewed: among the female graduates at the reporting institutions, 54% took an AHSS degree, versus only 30% taking a STEM degree. This “humanities bias” was highest in Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Portugal. Interestingly, a handful of countries—India, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Thailand—showed a “STEM bias,” with a larger percentage of women opting for STEM than AHSS degrees. In India, the STEM bias was a whopping 25 percentage points.

The report also notes that, at least by the self-reported numbers, universities seem to be more conscientious about tracking female students’ application, acceptance and completion rates (with some 83% of the institutions claiming to have policies in these areas) than they are about tracking women’s graduation rates, comparing them with men’s and working to close gaps (with only 64% reporting policies in this area). The disparity, the study authors write, “highlights a thorny and well-researched issue in the subject of gender equality, and equality more broadly: improving access is, of course, necessary but not sufficient in itself.”

Persistent gender gaps

Turning to indicators relevant to research and academics, the THE-IESALC report buttresses evidence from other sources that women remain significantly underrepresented in some traditional professional metrics. The 776 responding universities reported that, on average, only 36% of senior academics are women. Further, the average share of female authors on research papers across all institutions was only 29%. The report also points to other research suggesting that the proportion of female authorship likely fell during the pandemic, as women assumed a disproportionate share of child care responsibilities during government lockdowns.

Finally, the researchers scrutinized SDG 5 indicators of university-wide policies and services on gender equality. These included policies related non-discrimination against women and transgender people; maternity and paternity policies supporting women’s participation; childcare facilities for students, staff and faculty; and policies to protect those reporting discrimination.

Tellingly, while 89% of the 776 universities analyzed reported having policies of non-discrimination against women, only 17% were able to provide specific evidence about those policies. “In many cases, institutions will rely on the existence of such a legal framework and correctly state that they do have such a policy,” the reports authors note, “but rarely will they go much further than the law and design their own guidelines detailing how they address issues of discrimination against women.”

Looking for role models

While much of the study highlights, in the formulation common to such discussions, “the amount of work that still needs to be done” to address gender disparities, the authors of the report do stress that universities have in many ways “been a positive force” toward better gender equality. These institutions, the study maintains, “hold a unique position in society that makes them critical actors for change in this area.”

Perhaps in an effort to provide some guideposts on future efforts, the report concludes with case studies of five universities that the study believes have developed particularly enlightened policies for their regions: American University of Beirut, Lebanon; Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, India; University of Guadalajara, Mexico; Kenyatta University, Kenya; and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.

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