“Where have all the women gone?”

30 April 2014

Universities in South Asia have been urged to address the “shockingly low” number of women with positions of seniority in higher education, with the fear that it may be damaging the future of higher education in the region.

New research by the Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by the British Council, has found that while there has been a dramatic rise in the number of female students enrolled in South Asia’s universities, this has not been matched by an increase in women occupying senior leadership roles in the sector.

In India, the region’s biggest higher education market, the proportion of young women studying at university has doubled to 20 per cent, yet still only three per cent of Vice-Chancellors are women. By comparison, 14 per cent of Vice-Chancellors in the UK are women, and in Sweden, 43 per cent of heads of universities are women.

The report finds that women across South Asia are far less likely than men to undertake postgraduate study, to enter academia, and to progress from lecturer to professor or head of department. Women are underrepresented in all subjects and at all levels, but especially in middle management and senior leadership positions.

Despite a great deal of rhetoric about the need to tackle the situation, women are still being excluded and discriminated against in universities, and as a result their skills and talent are being wasted. The report argues that this will have significant social and economic costs as demand for higher education among both men and women grows rapidly across South Asia.

Michelle Potts, British Council Director of Education in South Asia, said: “More girls and women are benefitting from increased access to primary, secondary and tertiary education, but the battle is far from won. Looking at the leadership of the tertiary sector, the burning question remains: where have all the women gone? Networking, international experience and support for developing research are all important elements in supporting female academics and leaders and it is these areas that women find themselves excluded from essentially a boys’ club. Social change and the changing education environment mean that we need the role models of successful women higher education leaders to inspire and lead the next generation of female students; otherwise we risk losing the potential talent that it possesses.”

The findings of the research report ‘Dangerous Demographics: Women, Leadership, and the Looming Crisis in Higher Education’ have been debated by regional experts at the British Council’s ‘Going Global’ annual conference for leaders of international higher education, between April 29 – May 1.