Education International
Education International

Gender equity remains elusive for female academics

published 13 March 2008 updated 13 March 2008

Although they have made significant progress, women in academia continue to face persistent barriers to professional equality, particularly in fields such as computer science and engineering.

Experts from many countries presented papers on the theme of "Advancing Gender Equity" at the 6th International Conference on Higher Education and Research. Vanja Ivosevic from Croatia reported on a study undertaken for Education International that aimed to map the current global situation for women building careers in higher education. Data are scarce at the world level, she said, especially about academic women’s working conditions and employment status. However, UNESCO figures indicate that of roughly 88 million higher education students worldwide, 46.8% are women. Ivosevic noted that while women have higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates at the first level of higher education, their participation drops off dramatically by the PhD level. The percentage of women working as academic staff ranges from less than 20% in Sub-Saharan Africa and Arab states to 50% in the former Soviet states in Central and Eastern Europe. Women are concentrated in the lower ranks of faculty positions and they face significant pay gaps compared with male colleagues. They are also more likely to hold part-time or non-tenure track positions, Ivosevic added. Dr. Carolyn Allport, President of the National Tertiary Education Union in Australia, said her union has a long history of conducting research on pay equity and now is planning another major study. “We have a high regard for the necessity to address pay inequity,” she said. The NTEU has seen a huge increase in female participation, so that now 57% of higher education staff in Australia are women. At the same time, the university sector is becoming less attractive to men due to declining wages and status of academic positions, which are increasingly casualised, Allport said. She described three sources of inequity: gender discrimination, occupational segregation by gender, and gender-based assumptions about family responsibilities. The challenge of balancing a scholarly career and an active family life is particularly difficult in Australia, where there are no government-funded maternity benefits, Allport noted. While female academics often choose to work part-time in order to meet family duties, male academics tend to work part-time in order to pursue additional studies. Not surprisingly, the barriers at the PhD level are significant for women of child-bearing and child-rearing age. Allport suggested several strategies for academic unions:

  • Work collaboratively with employers and involve management in addressing gender inequity.
  • Undertake pay equity audits to document wage gaps and identify inequalities. This can be particularly useful prior to opening a round of collective bargaining.
  • Seek legislative redress for historic and ongoing pay inequities.
  • Review job classification systems to see how they can be made fairer, and monitor promotion outcomes.

Soledad Ruiz Seguin, Director of the Andalusian Women’s Institute, described the 20th Century as the era of the revolution in women’s rights and especially in terms of women’s access to education. Women in Spain have made tremendous progress in the 75 years since they won the right to vote, Ruiz said. Today, 60% of Spanish university graduates are female and, by contrast to most other countries, women have achieved gender parity at the doctoral level. However, Spanish women still face considerable discrimination in terms of research funding, Ruiz said, with only 40% of all research grants going to females. The Andalusian Women’s Institute is responsible for the adaptation and implementation of national legislation fostering gender equity. It also has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve opportunities and working conditions for women in academia. These include:

  • Support for young women researchers;
  • Establishing child care facilities on university campuses;
  • Encouraging universities to make equity plans;
  • Negotiating agreements with the 10 Andalusian universities to grant recognition of the academic value of Gender and Women’s Studies;
  • Advocacy and support in cases of gender violence in the workplace.

Ruiz said that the women in Andalusia have had good results to date, but much remains to be done. She urged scholars to share feminist knowledge in their classrooms, and to assert values of equity and social justice in education policy and on their campuses.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 25, February/March 2008.