By Ismail Badat

02 June 2015 - 16:57

'Female interviewees in our research frequently described South Asian university campuses as unfriendly and unaccommodating to women.' Photo (c) Mat Wright
'Female interviewees in our research frequently described South Asian university campuses as unfriendly and unaccommodating to women.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

A British Council report with the University of Sussex on women in South Asia's higher education sector suggests that men could do more to help women succeed. The British Council's Ismail Badat explains.

‘This is a man's world. But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.’ The song, immortalised by James Brown in the 1967 hit ‘It's a Man's Man's Man's World’, attributes all the works of modern civilisation (the car, the train, the electric light) to the efforts of men. But despite the singer's insistence that it all would ‘mean nothing without a woman or a girl’, the sad irony is that Brown's song-writing partner, Betty Jean Newsome, is barely known. She is rarely credited artistically, and according to some sources was grossly under-compensated (compared to her male counterpart) for her contribution to the R&B classic.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), makes for sobering reading. It estimates that it will take 81 years for the worldwide gender gap to close. And according to the International Monetary Fund, 865 million women could contribute 'more fully' to their national economies. South Asia makes up a big proportion of this total, with one of the lowest labour participation rates among women. If South Asian women had equal access to employment and education opportunities, the region could double its economic growth.

Men are part of the problem and the solution

One of the findings of our report on women in higher education leadership roles in South Asia suggested that men are part of the problem. After all, more patriarchal societies, such as those in South Asia, tend to have fewer women at the helm.

But I would assert that men are a major part of the solution too. They have a lot to gain from highlighting the inequality manifest in the education sector, as men face challenges too when it comes to leadership. Men from minorities, under-represented groups and men with disabilities often face obstacles to success. By helping women, men can help themselves.

So what can men can do to support women - particularly within South Asia's education sector?

We need a new gender-neutral narrative about leadership

Rather than simply counting more women into existing systems and structures, the report says that we urgently need to re-envision leadership, to make it more attractive and hospitable to women (and men). Many women take themselves out of the running for leadership roles, because leadership is associated with particular types of 'masculine' traits, such as competitiveness and ruthlessness. Many of those interviewed said they were afraid of being the subject of hostility or even ridicule.

The report recommends that there needs to be a new narrative about leadership, to make it gender-neutral, rather than burdened by macho stereotypes. One recommendation put forward at a gathering of education leaders hosted by the British Council in Delhi was the idea of a media campaign targeting young children with positive representations of women in leadership positions. This could mirror Vogue India's recent 'Boys Don't Cry' campaign on domestic violence in India and how boys are brought up to absorb the message that they shouldn't cry, but that it's ok to make women cry instead.

Family culture needs to change to support women's careers

Society still puts out strong messages about what is considered gender-appropriate behaviour for women. In South Asia, this can include less education, early marriage, and motherhood. Women who are equally or better qualified than their husbands or partners may in some cases sacrifice their own career aspirations to become 'trailing spouses' or homemakers. Sons are viewed as the future of the family, whilst girls and women are seen as being 'someone else's problem' once they marry.

Despite the increasing numbers of women entering higher education in South Asia, the number of women researchers is sharply curtailed. According to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit for the British Council, the number of female researchers varies across the region, from as little as eight per cent in Nepal to 37 per cent in Sri Lanka. Even in India, where nearly 42 per cent of those involved in higher education are women, the number of female researchers languishes at a lowly 14 per cent.

Mothers-in-law were singled out by some interviewees as standing between aspiring young women and future leadership. As one senior female academic in Pakistan put it, ‘mothers-in-law are very strong figures in Pakistan … even our husbands, they cannot say no to them!’.

In our research, which involved many interviews with leading women academics across South Asia, family support was cited as critical to career progression. Fatma Al Qassimi, the manager at Zayed University’s Office of Accessibility in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a case in point. She helped set the first accessibility centre in the UAE, but recalls how it was her father who insisted she travel to Kuwait and then the UK to study in the '70s, when it was against cultural and societal norms for a woman to study overseas, let alone a wheelchair-bound young girl.

Job panels may display bias against women candidates

The interviews also gave a strong message that women face discriminatory recruitment and promotion procedures, which lack transparency and accountability. One female Indian professor we interviewed highlighted how political connections can outweigh merit in university recruitment: 'Selection is not by competence, it’s not by efficiency, it’s by political allegiance.' There is equally the sense that women are recruited on actual achievement, and men on potential. As one speaker in Delhi remarked, 'we will have true gender parity only when we have as many mediocre women as mediocre men in leadership positions'.

Some interview respondents felt that selection panels recruited 'in their own image', based on fear and aversion to perceived risk. Having more women on recruitment panels might just begin to turn the tide. India has just legislated to include women on public boards, and this is yielding some positive results. The irony is that whilst most human resources departments in universities are predominantly staffed by women, the people who make the decisions are still men.

Fix the campus culture

Female interviewees in our research frequently described South Asian university campuses as unfriendly and unaccommodating to women, and in extreme cases reported the prevalence of sexual harassment and stalking. A UNESCO/UNDP-supported study in three universities in Afghanistan (Kabul, Balkh, Herat) from 2010 found that gender discrimination was prevalent, and some women felt they were treated as ‘second-class citizens of the university’.

The rape and death of a female medical student in 2012 forced the hand of the Indian government to take drastic measures to try to ensure women students' safety, and introduce gender sensitivity programmes on campuses.

Such programmes can help develop a greater understanding and respect for both sexes. The mostly male leadership of South Asian universities (only three per cent of South Asia's university vice-chancellors are women) could improve the quality of the student experience as a whole if they made gender issues mainstream, and embedded gender sensitivity training into the curriculum for all students.

Women need more mentors - whether female or male

In interviews and discussions with us, top women academics often described their leadership journey as a series of accidental appointments, rather than a conscious and deliberate effort to reach the top. Women talked about the lack of structured programmes and support to help with career progression, and cited the lack of female mentors or role models to guide and advise them as a particular handicap. Not only were such female role models few in number, but in some cases, those women who were leaders did not recognise themselves as such.

Academics at the British Council's Delhi event on women in academia pointed out that a good leader does not necessarily equate to a good teacher or role model (Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of the UK, and Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister of Bangladesh, were frequently mentioned in this category). One provocation was that women leaders were guilty of kicking the ladder from under them, and not allowing other women to scale the ivory tower.

So why can’t more male leaders put themselves up as mentors to aspiring women leaders? It is time that high-flying men share the secret of the sauce, and allow women into this exclusive club on their own terms.

After James Brown's death in 2007, Betty Jean Newsome had nothing but kind words for the singer. Despite being left virtually penniless after an acrimonious split and a confetti of law suits, she said, 'I miss him. There was only one. There was none before him, and there will never be another JB.' One wonders whether the man referred to as the ‘godfather of soul’ would have been so magnanimous, had the roles been reversed.

The report, ‘Women in Higher Education Leadership in South Asia: Rejection, Refusal, Reluctance, Revisioning’, was prepared by Professor Louise Morley and Dr Barbara Crossouard at the University of Sussex. They interviewed more than 30 women and men academics in the region.

A related session took place at our annual international higher education conference, Going Global.

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