By Nishat Riaz

06 March 2015 - 11:28

'We just need to provide the right conditions for women to flourish.' Photo: Mat Wright
'We just need to provide the right conditions for women to flourish.' Image ©

Mat Wright

Ahead of International Women's Day this Sunday, British Council Pakistan Director of Education Nishat Riaz writes about the gender disparity in leadership in South Asia’s higher education sector and beyond.

A huge, fast-changing region

South Asia is home to over one-fifth of the world’s population. Ranging from the deltas of Bangladesh to the mountains of Afghanistan, it sweeps in Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, and the islands of the Maldives. It’s the most densely populated geographical region in the world, home to 1.64 billion people — nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

Gender inequality starts at the level of basic literacy 

It’s a fascinating place that is rapidly changing. South Asia has produced 20 famous female politicians over the last five decades, of whom three made it to the office of prime minister. But it’s also a place where access to education has been dominated by men. According to UNESCO, in 2008, 796 million adults worldwide were illiterate. More than half of those lived in South Asia, and nearly two-thirds were women. South Asia was also home to the greatest gender disparity — nearly three quarters of all South Asian men, but only just over half of all South Asian women, could read and write.

Women make up a healthy proportion of undergraduates, globally 

Once you get to university level, the picture seems to change. As undergraduates, women's numbers are increasing: both globally, and in South Asia specifically. Women form more than half of the higher education student population in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) area. The OECD's 2008 report, The reversal of gender inequalities in higher education, predicted that only four member countries would fail to have at least as many women as men by 2015: Japan, Korea, Switzerland, and Turkey. In India, men still outnumber women in higher education, but not by much: women make up 42 per cent of the university population.

Further up the academic tree, there are bigger problems

However, at the higher levels of academia, gender inequality remains. At the postgraduate researcher level, there's an imbalance: one report, Defined by absence: Women and research in South Asia, which was prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of the British Council, says that despite a rise in the number of female undergraduates in South Asia, 'female enrolment in postgraduate degree programmes has not risen as rapidly, and women researchers are notably missing.'

Not enough women hold the top jobs at universities

Just three per cent of vice-chancellors in India are women, and six of India’s 13 female vice chancellors run women-only institutions. Few women hold leadership roles, and new research has found that in South Asia, women academics are not being identified and prepared for leadership. This is a long-term, global problem: men outnumbered women at a ratio of about 5:1 at middle management level and at 20:1 at senior management level, according to the UNESCO Commonwealth Report on Women in Higher Education (1993).

What's behind this gender imbalance?

The British Council’s report, Women in Higher Education Leadership in South Asia: Rejection, Refusal, Reluctance, Revisioning, covered six countries in the region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The findings showed complex social, cultural and economic barriers to women’s leadership. These included the organisational culture within universities; discrimination in recruitment and selection for jobs; and unequal power relations. Women who aspire for leadership are frequently rejected from senior positions. Many other women do not aim for senior leadership roles, as they perceive them to be an unattractive career option.

Inequality damages all professional sectors in all countries

This is not just a problem for South Asia, and it’s not just a problem within universities. Female leadership in higher education is not very different from other sectors. A significant body of research shows that, for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader.

More than 100 years ago, the radical writer and activist Emma Goldman wrote her essay 'The Tragedy of Woman's Emancipation.' She touched four things we're still working on today: first, that men dominate many of the most esteemed professional fields, and get paid more for their work; second, that work stress disproportionately affects women; third, that the 'freedom' the workplace supposedly offers women sometimes doesn't feel so free at all; and fourth, that women are doubling up on work at home and outside of the home.

Goldman summarised the underlying causes very beautifully: 'The narrowness of the existing conception of woman's independence and emancipation; the dread of love for a man who is not her social equal; the fear that love will rob her of her freedom and independence; the horror that love or the joy of motherhood will only hinder her in the full exercise of her profession — all these together make of the emancipated modern woman a compulsory vestal, before whom life, with its great clarifying sorrows and its deep, entrancing joys, rolls on without touching or gripping her soul'. There have been lots of studies on gender at work, but there's still no region in the world where men and women share completely equal legal, social and economic rights.

To tackle inequality, you have to change the society in which it exists

Women don’t exist in a vacuum. They are surrounded by men and fellow women, each of whom has perceptions driven by their culture, education, religion and personal bias. Their resulting behaviour affects our perceptions about gender roles. This starts at birth: in many parts of South Asia, a girl's birth is mourned, not celebrated. Later on, boys are often given preference over their sisters when it comes to basic health and education needs.

This broader social context also affects how women succeed within organisations. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that it’s not enough to identify and instil the ‘right’ skills and competencies as if organisations operate in a social vacuum. The environment must support a woman’s motivation to lead, and encourage others to recognise and encourage her efforts — even if she doesn't look or behave like the current generation of senior executives.

The same report suggests several ways to enable women to win leadership positions. It argues that women and men need to be educated about gender bias; that organisations should create safe spaces at work and support women's transitions to bigger roles; and that efforts to encourage women’s development must be anchored in a push for better leadership. The aim is to change the whole environment.

It's not enough to add piecemeal gender laws to a national policy that ignores women

A closer look at South Asia’s national education policies, plans and programmes shows that most governments in the region have made commitments to increasing women's access to education, but they don’t tend to factor in women’s rights in their wider policies. Governments tend to combine ‘gender-blind’ policies, which don’t integrate gender considerations thoroughly into the broader scheme of things, with some scattered gender-specific elements targeting women. Along with a lack of dedicated resources, little parental and community involvement, and poorly managed information systems, this has meant that women aren't supported.

What’s more, there is no commitment to increasing women's agency in the education system: as teachers, administrators and policy makers. There is also a general lack of co-ordination between policies to increase education for women, and policies in related sectors that affect women's ability to benefit from their education.

We can change the environment for women for the better

A famous verse in Urdu says Zara num ho to yeh mitti baree zerkheiz hai saaqi; meaning, ‘all we need is an opportunity as this land is ripe for yield’. In South Asia’s higher education sector, the land is waiting to be fertile. We just need to provide the right conditions for women to flourish.

Read the full report, Defined by absence: Women and research in South Asia. You can also register to attend the Going Global conference for higher education leaders, which takes place in London on 1 and 2 June 2015, and hosts a session on equality [link expired].

You might also be interested in: