Keep focus on gender equality despite backlash, says Unesco

Warning comes as report on past 25 years of efforts on issue highlight the major challenges that remain

October 9, 2020
Gender, equality, diversity, discrimination
Source: iStock

Moves towards tackling gender equality in higher education must continue despite evidence of a cultural “backlash” against such measures in some countries, the head of a United Nations programme that monitors educational inequalities has warned.

Manos Antoninis, director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Global Education Monitoring Report, made the comments as the project released a major update on progress made on gender quality at all levels of education.

The new Unesco report, timed to mark 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on improving women’s rights globally, shows that three times more women were enrolled in universities in 2018 than in 1995, with the number rising from 38 million to 116 million.

Alongside this, the worldwide female gross enrolment ratio – the number of enrolled women as a share of the typical tertiary education-age female population – grew from 15 per cent to 41 per cent.

The rapid rise in female enrolments meant that there was either gender parity, or disparity at the expense of men, in higher education in most regions except sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the overall progress comes despite huge challenges in many countries and on particular issues, such as enrolments in subjects such as engineering and technology.

In about half of the countries with enough data between 2016 and 2018, just a quarter of enrolled students in engineering, manufacturing, construction, and information and communication technology (ICT) programmes were women.

The report also highlights the problem of women being “under-represented as senior faculty and in higher education decision-making bodies in many countries”.

“While this reflects women’s history of lower access to education, it is also often a sign of institutional cultures that are neither inclusive nor geared towards broader social and cultural change for greater gender equality,” it says.

There have been some efforts to address issues such as female representation in leadership roles and in science departments through affirmative action, such as women-only shortlists, or by tying funding to efforts to achieve more gender balance.

Dr Antoninis said such schemes did often need “serious consideration” if change on gender equality in education was to “accelerate” and warned that a growing cultural backlash in some societies against such measures could risk progress.

“I think you need the carrot and the stick” when it comes to changing the dial on gender equality, he said, although he acknowledged that schemes had “to be designed in a sensible way so that it does not provoke backlash”.

“The issue of a backlash is a worldwide problem…and it is very important to keep an eye [on this], because they are often associated with other cultural battles, and that is why the report’s recommendations essentially ask for that focus [on improving gender equality] to continue.”

Meanwhile, on improving the number of women studying STEM fields, Dr Antoninis said a key issue was changing perceptions about roles within society that were rooted in school, parental and community influence.

For example, in textbooks and elsewhere, “still in most countries there are very few images that highlight the contributions that women make in science. Even in richer countries, you still find very few images showing women scientists and engineers,” Dr Antoninis said.

The report points out that the STEM issue is often worse in major industrialised countries, where on average women accounted for less than 20 per cent of entrants in tertiary computer science programmes and about 18 per cent of engineering entrants.

And it warns that at “all education levels, girls show lower values in self-efficacy – that is, perceived as opposed to actual abilities – in mathematics and science subjects, aside from life sciences”.

Such imbalances are worrying, the report adds, because they mean that women are “largely absent from the frontiers of technological innovation”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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