Paris, August 1998

Original English



Thematic Debate: Higher Education and Women: Issues and Perspectives "

Drafted by: UNESCO Secretariat

in collaboration with:

Steering Committee:

. International Federation of University Women (IFUW) - Mme Françoise Sauvage

. International Federation of Women in Legal Professions (IFWLP) - Mme Claire Jourdan

. Soroptimist International - Mme Jeannine Jacquemin

. Professor Lydia P. Makhubu, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Swaziland, Member of the WCHE Steering Committee


Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU)

International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW)

International Council of Nurses (ICN)

Intrernational Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW)

Inter-American Organization for Higher Education (IOHE)

Zonta International




This debate aims to examine the status quo with regard to the major issues related to women in higher education. It will point to strategies which may help Member States and other higher education stakeholders in their efforts to strengthen the role of women in this sector and their contribution to social development in general.

Over the past years, and as secondary education enrolments increase, the access of women to higher education has improved significantly. However, progress is still possible, notably their participation in fields such as science and technology.

In contrast, the presence of a critical mass of women in the decision-making process remains vastly inadequate. Also, a number of cultural barriers still exist which seriously impedes their development as citizens and professionals.

The WCHE will provide clear guidelines for the next phase in the dynamic which will ensure full equity for women graduates and students. The UNESCO Special Project, Women, Higher Education and Development, will provide examples of good practice in this respect.


I. Introduction

This paper prepared for the World Conference on Higher Education aims is to present a stocktaking of the issues related to women in higher education:

promotion, notably through the use of binding legal instruments, of the rights of women as citizens to full participation in all areas of social development;

efforts to improve the access of women, especially those from developing countries, to higher education;

measures to ensure that highly qualified women will participate fully in the decision-making processes of society, through their roles in government, in the community and in the family. Here, strengthening their leadership capacities becomes vital.

The Global Strategy on Women and Higher Education (see Annex 1) is intended to facilitate the promotion of these goals. Since 1990, UNESCO has situated these issues in a wider arena of discussion notably:

. the trends driving the development process

. the progress achieved since the 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995)

. the specific problems related to the renewal and reform of the higher education sector itself

. the nature of social leadership in a multicultural world.


II. Women and Development: Guiding Principles

Firstly, UNESCO aims to foster a gender-inclusive culture through education, including higher education, in order to promote sustainable human development and peace.

The key dimensions of human development have become: empowerment, co-operation, equity, sustainability and security.

The commitment to these goals by the family of world nations can only be possible if effective partnerships are formed to construct a more human society in order to realize the potential of investment in human capital and co-operative action. This emphasis on dialogue, on coalition and on collaboration forms the basis of the new approach to development strategy and requires full participation from the relevant actors involved - that is to say, from men and womeThe principle of gender equality must be related to the legal rights of women. In this regard the main normative instruments are:

- the Universal Declaration on Human Rights,1948
- the Convention against Discrimination in Education, 1960
- the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979.

These link to the resolutions and recommendations of major UN conferences and initiates which emphasize the importance of the gender dimension in the resolution of global issues, inter alia:
- the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, 1985
- the report on the World Decade for Cultural Development, 1988-1997
- the World Conference on Education for All, Jomtien, 1990
- the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro 1992
- the Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, 1994
- the World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen 1995
- the 4th World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995
- Habitat II, Istanbul, 1996
- the World Food Summit, Rome 1996
- the United Nations Decade on Education for Human Rights 1995-2004
- 5th International Conference on Adult Education.

Together, these legal instruments and strategic reports form a framework inside which the gender dimension of education can be assured of reference and advancement.


III. Beijing and Beyond

The 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995) merits special attention for its role as a watershed in the history of women's social empowerment and leadership:

-firstly, it confirmed that the entire gender issue has gained worldwide attention as a crucial component in the development process; with this recognition, it may be possible to redress the inequalities more effectively:

-secondly, and compared with earlier conferences, it resulted in more concrete recommendations to help ensure that women take their full place in the world of the 21st century.

Many of the key problems faced by women and identified in the Beijing Declaration remain unsolved:

- persistent poverty
- inequality of access to education, health and welfare
- violence
- impact of armed conflicts
- absence from decision-making in the economic sector
- unequal participation in the power structures of society
- insufficient mechanisms to promote the advancement of women
- inadequate recognition of women's rights
- failure to recognize women's contribution to society
- insufficient recognition of their contribution to environmental protection and management.

These problems impede the personal and social empowerment of women, and, consequently, they hinder their ability to emerge as effective leaders at every level of daily life.

While progress has been significant, much remains to be done as is evidenced by statistics stated in Human Development Report published annually by the United Nations Development Programme:

-66% of the world's illiterates are women;
-only 33% of women compared to men enrol in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa with even lower figures in science and technology;
-their participation in employment is only 50% compared to that of men in developing countries;
-women in certain countries still cannot vote or own property;
-in politics they represent only 10% of the world's parliamentarians;
-national GNPs could rise significantly if women's unpaid work was an official factor in production;
-women still suffer salary disparity compared to men in numerous instances of professional life (on average 25% less).

Clearly rapid change must occur and the role of education, notably as an investment in human capital, is an essential aspect of this challenge where men and women have equal responsibility.

Against this background, the thorough and far-reaching renovation of education systems has gained considerable support as one effective way to tackle social problems - old and new.

In 1996, UNESCO published the report of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by Jacques Delors. This exercise studied education in relation to culture, citizenship, social cohesion, development, employment and scientific progress, and concluded that, since the world is rapidly moving towards a global and knowledge-intensive society, truly innovative approaches to teaching and learning must be defined and implemented.

The report stresses the concept of the learning society throughout life, on dealing with the realities of internationalization and on social inclusion which has important ramification with regard to the education of women and girls. National policy-makers must ensure that the access to and participation of women in education at all stages of their lives is safeguarded and facilitated.

Since higher education is traditionally where social and economic leaders, as well as experts in all fields, receive a significant part of their personal and professional training, it has special responsibilities for this task which concern men and women on an equal basis.


IV. Higher Education Today: The Challenges

Five issues are of particular significance:

i. the continued demand for access which has doubled and even tripled in some countries, necessitating a shift from elite to mass higher education;

ii. the continued reduction of financial resources and growing accountability measures imposed by governments;

iii. the maintenance of quality and relevance and the measures required for their assessment. This problem will grow since student numbers could reach 120 million by the year 2050;

iv. the ongoing problem of graduate employment which is forcing a reassessment of academic degrees and diplomas;

v. the growing reality of internationalization in higher education teaching, training and research which deals with the mobility of both people and knowledge.

These phenomena dominate the 1994 Policy Papers entitled Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience and Higher Education for Change and Development, prepared respectively by the World Bank and UNESCO.

With regard to the major challenges facing higher education in various regions of the world, it is possible to propose the following summaries:

- in Africa, the continuing development problems and donor insistence on basic education, has deflected attention from higher learning which, as the globalization phenomenon gathers momentum, risks its further decline. There is now a strong dynamic towards renewal to be considered as a partner, rather than a dependent, in a new social order. The gender issue in higher education has emerged as a top priority in this region;

- the Arab States are marked by great cultural diversity, economic disparities and social instability. Here, since populations are numerous and very young, there is an urgent need to modernize systems and structures to meet the demand for higher education and to help shape a more stable society. Currently, women are very rare as leaders in higher education institutions;

- Asia and the Pacific is the region which has experimented most widely with higher education - very often to meet the new employment requirements of market-driven economies. In contrast, serious poverty persists in certain countries and an over-supply of academic graduates (notably in India) face problems of employment in rapidly changing job markets. Gender is approached in many different ways in this culturally diverse region - however, women as heads of institutions are few.

- Europe, of course, encompasses countries with vastly different systems and levels of development. Western European nations are currently engaged in wide-ranging reforms designed to attune higher education to a future society where key aspects such as employment and technology are undergoing radical transformation. Eastern and Central Europe, which are gearing their economies to the market system, have accelerated the modernization of higher education in an effort to equip their populations with the capacities necessary for the management of the social and economic transition in progress. Numerically, this region would have the highest instance of women in leadership posts;

- Latin America and the Caribbean, a basically rich region where social and economic stability has significantly improved, has a history of academic higher education with a strong tradition for private institutions. It is now committed to higher education which optimizes human capital and natural resources, thus re-orienting it to meet development priorities and the growing role of the region in the global economy. Women are frequently present in management positions but the gender dimension must be treated with caution in certain contexts.

Against this background, three specific aspects related to higher education and women emerge:

- firstly, women graduates must be seen as part of the essential human resource base of each country. As such they have then right to the same access and career opportunities as their male counterparts. Discriminatory practices are not only unjust but a flagrant wastage of valuable expertise which, today, is vital for all nations;

- secondly, in higher education itself where reform is the priority, there should be a strong commitment to equipping women with the necessary range of managerial skills to contribute to the overall renewal of this sector;

- thirdly, the nature of power, as it is used in positions of leadership and management, may need to be conceived quite differently. Feminine leadership needs clearer analysis and definition and may be preferred as a model more suited to the needs of social development across all sectors including, higher education.


V. Women and Higher Education: Key Aspects

Three main factors are vital:

-societal attitudes to women which discourage their participation in decision-making;
-their lower enrolments in higher education to date (although here, patterns are rapidly changing in all regions);
-the absence of a gender dimension in the higher education curriculum.

They will certainly not accede to leadership posts in higher education or in society in greater numbers until these issues are addressed.

Participation in Decision-making

Decision-making attests to the empowerment of the various actors involved. At the present time, far too few women possess this attribute. Education facilitates empowerment which is essential for the participation of women in all aspects of the development process. Furthermore, higher education provides the expertise usually required for the key posts which shape policy in all fields - hence its particular importance for women is obvious.

In the 1993, UNESCO/Commonwealth Secretariat study entitled Women in Higher Education Management identified the principal barriers preventing the participation of women in the decision-making arena:

-limited access to education, especially higher education;
-discriminatory appointment and promotion practices;
-the stresses of dual family and professional roles;
-family attitudes;
-career interruptions;
-cultural stereotyping;
-alienation from the male culture and continued resistance to women in management positions;
-propagation of the glass ceiling syndrome which privileges covert criteria for advancement;
-absence of adequate policies and legislation to ensure the participation of women.

Given these obstacles, solutions to remedy the exclusion of women lie in a reversal of these trends by means of wider access to education, notably higher education, review of appointment and promotion procedures, provision of legislative and infra-structure support in all professions and of special programmes for women, affirmative action to favour women's access and participation while awaiting a genuine change in attitude towards full gender equality and institutional and governmental support through clear and effective policies which are actually enforced.


Women's Enrolment in Higher Education

The past 20 years have witnessed significant - but not sufficient - enrolment of the female population in higher education. This progress has certainly been due in part to specific strategies which have focused attention on the inequalities to be redressed. UN action has been effective in this regard as policy-makers have been sensitized to the rights of women and to the need to open all levels of education to their greater numbers.

A closer analysis of higher education statistics reveals the different nature of the problem in different socio-cultural and economic contexts. In general, women's enrolments have improved and may even exceed those of men. Moreover, certain countries have clearly made a strong commitment to facilitating the access of women to higher education. As might be expected, the greatest disparities continue to be found in the developing world:


Number of Students per 100.000 inhabitants





























































Women who do enter universities often tend to follow courses in arts and social sciences because they lack competence in scientific and technological fields:

Percentage of students by fields of study


All students

% Women





.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical sciences/Nursing







.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical Sciences/Nursing







.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical Sciences/Nursing



United Kingdom




.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical Sciences/Nursing







.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical Sciences/Nursing







.Law, Social Sciences



.Medical Sciences/Nursing



(Source: World Education Report, 1995)

Certain aspects of the access/ participation analysis require significant improvement, notably further analysis of the courses chosen by women, the fortunes of female graduates when they become predominant in a given profession yet fail to share in the decision-making process of that field, and the promotion of women in science at all levels of education so as to permit careers in this domain.

From the economic standpoint, higher education qualifications effectively raise both employment prospects and social expectations of graduates. Despite the current economic climate, those with a degree or diploma are ten times more likely to find employment that unskilled persons. Thus, it is high time to promote more enlightened attitudes towards highly educated women whose qualifications entitle them to career fulfilment and who - as the principal or equal salary-earner - require appropriate support in the management of personal and professional duties.

The Gender Dimension of the University Curriculum

This can be justified on several counts:

.recognition and enhancement of the university's role in society
.the impact of Internationalization and Globalization
.the creation and exchange of knowledge and know-how
.the need to tackle social problems at the grass-roots level
.mainstreaming of gender issues

In Women and the University Curriculum, produced to mark the 1995 Beijing Conference, the authors were in agreement that, today, the university curriculum must:
- offer stimulating role models for women students;
- encouragement and build their confidence
- present male-dominated careers in a light which is more attractive to women.

Moreover, since development theory acknowledges that the gender dimension has become a key factor in any solutions proposed for global problems, and as many higher education institutions are now engaged in far-reaching curriculum innovation to keep abreast of social change, the omission of this aspect is no longer acceptable.

Women who are appointed to executive posts in institutions where gender sensitivity is a reality may consequently find that their leadership is more readily accepted.


VI. Women as Leaders in Higher Education

Would the higher education sector benefit from more female leaders? We are at a certain point in the process of social change where management models are being questioned and where the numbers of women in various professional fields are increasing steadily. To some extent, this can be seen as a crossroads and the new direction taken is very important since this will lead to governance patterns in the 21st century.

Current statistics from the world's principal associations of universities attest to the need to improve the presence of women at the top of higher education:



Institutions led by women (numbers or %)

Association of African Universities



Association of Arab Universities



Association of Commonwealth Universities



Association of French-speaking Universities



Association of European Universities



Association of Universities of Asia and the Pacific


5% -

Inter-American Organization for Higher Education



Union des Universidades de America Latina



1 10 in non-ACU member universities
2 founding member universities
3 14% in Brazil

While women continue to become more numerous posts such as deputy vice-chancellor and as academic HODs, three questions of prime importance emerge:

-what is the reality of higher education governance today?
-is feminine leadership a valid concept with applications to the higher education context?
-how does cultural diversity impact upon management practices and the role of women in this area?

Higher Education Governance

Given the ongoing modernization and reform of this sector, the role of vice-chancellor or rector has undergone radical transformation in recent years. An ideal check-list of qualities and skills needed by the prospective VC or rector might read as follows:

-strong record of academic leadership/excellence in research and teaching
-leadership skills, including visioning capacities
-management skills
-institutional experience
-international experience of higher education
-negotiating skills to deal with all stakeholders (internally, the management, the professoriate and students; externally, national policy-makers, the economic sector, community groups, regional and international peer groups)
-communication skills including, if possible, charisma.

As the challenges facing higher education grow more complex, it is true that the governance of this sector requires even greater skills. And, these challenges come at a time when top leadership itself is under close scrutiny.

There is no reason why women should be excluded from this position of leadership and power, provided their capacities are those sought. First and foremost, this principle must be reiterated, accepted and practised in the field of higher education. Secondly, adequate training opportunities must be given to women to acquire skills which, otherwise, would exclude their candidature from consideration when leadership posts arise.

For this reason, UNESCO, in co-operation with a number of NGOs promotes management capacities for higher education personnel - from VCs and rectors through the various echelons of the institutions. In particular, with the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth Secretariat, UNESCO has adopted a strategy to provide management training for women and research on the issues which can promote (or hinder) their advancement within the executive ranks. Topics covered include management development, Women's studies as a catalyst for their progress, the management of professional and personal roles, women and leadership and, from a broader standpoint, women and university governance. So far, this targets women who, through their positions, can train their colleagues and thus ensure a multiplier effect so that more women managers may emerge at all levels of their institutions.

Feminine Leadership in the Academy

The concept of leadership, at all levels, encompasses many facets: vision, the capacity to inspire as well as to organize, to handle power, to assume responsibility and, perhaps, most importantly, to serve society at large in some particular way.

In a world of increasing complexity (some would say chaos), the quality of leadership has certainly assumed new proportions which are essential to the survival and success of any enterprise or institution. This brings us to the notion of feminine leadership and a number of related issues notably whether this is a valid concept and whether women will be permitted to claim their right to participation in higher education decision-making at all levels and on their own terms.

In a study commissioned by UNESCO to the Inter-American Association for Higher Education, Professor Sheryl Bond of Queen's University, Canada, examined the concept of academic leadership today, emphasizing that the increasing appointment of women indicates the reality of social change. Factors preventing women's access to top positions are considered and new paradigms witnessing the interaction of social context and positional power are described. Bond advocates a move from debate to dialogue which will equate the advancement of women with the renewal and progress of the institution - an essential shift in thinking if higher education is to contribute effectively to the development process.

At the moment, feminine leadership and its possible benefits continue to constitute a controversial area of the debate in terms of empowerment for women. However, there is a growing belief that feminine leadership is emerging as a distinct force in management which has been influenced by very specific factors:

-a commitment to power sharing (which implies rejection of power by domination)
-an insistence on self-respect, service and the importance of merit
-a focus on concrete results in the professional context
-recognition and accommodation of the pressures of managing personal and professional lives.

As we continue in transition mode, a significant group would still deny these trends, insisting that access to decision-making still depends essentially on emulation of male behaviour. However, despite this divergence of opinion, all would agree that truly able women leaders have an obligation to assist other competent women.

Cultural Diversity, Women and Higher Education

Without doubt, the reality of cultural diversity is a most problematic area in relation to women as leaders and managers both in higher education and in society at large. Many factors come into play - the historical roles of women in certain societies, the conflicts arising from their advanced education and exposure to other cultures, their own continued commitment to the values of their own race, religion and nation.

In dealing with the tension between women of varied cultures and their role in the advancement of higher education, several points must be kept in mind:

-the role of women in any given society is subject to a number of key traditions, some of which are age-old and must impact on their lives as citizens and professions in particularly complex ways; the Special Project Women, Higher Education and Development, by promoting the training and research modalities of the UNITWIN/UNESCO Chairs Programme, aims to improve the careers of women in priority areas such as higher education management, community health, social inclusion, poverty alleviation and science and development (see Annex 2). These Chairs and networks recognize cultural identity as a key variable in structuring the activities implemented;

-in certain countries and cultures, highly women have had access to power but often because of their family, marital or political connections;

-management varies enormously amongst cultures - a fact which has gained even greater attention with the reality of internationalization; an understanding of other peoples and of their languages as an expression of their thought patterns is now accepted as an essential component for successful enterprise in every sphere of activity;

-paradoxically, management is - universally - about getting things done by other people. Hence, at some point, it is essential for cultures to find common ground for dialogue and negotiation. In this context, culture ceases to be a barrier and, instead, becomes a bridge to building links with the other side.

In the leadership and management of higher education, women of different cultures can network to exchange visions and views which enrich their own approaches to specific issues, including the way in which they handle male attitudes to power and decision-making in their own countries. Despite profound cultural diversity, certain precepts must guide women as they seek greater particiaption in decison-making and power sharing:

. Women's Legal Rights
. The Critical Mass Factor
. Adapting Cultural Traditions
. The Challenges of Leadership
. Institutional Commitment to Gender Equity
. Feminine Leadership
. The Social Responsibilities of Higher Education

These are universally valid and attest, in the most eloquent manner possible, to the feminine vision of priorities for higher education leadership in the coming years when a new social partnership will be increasing sought - not only by women but by all responsible citizens.


VII. Conclusions: Trends towards Change

What are the perspectives with regard to these issues?

The world is moving towards greater democracy and market-oriented policies in an effort to improve human development. In this climate, more opportunities should be provided for women to obtain executive appointments. The efforts of specialized agencies , of women's groups and the resolutions of international conferences all contribute towards the recruitment of women for such positions.

Clear trends to strengthen the empowerment of highly qualified women are visible in the fields of research, training, advocacy and networking and must be further strengthened. These operate both in the higher education domain itself and also in professional activities. The spin-off effects resulting from increased access and participation are life-long and have flow-on benefits for women in all social groups.

These thus constitute the foundations of UNESCO's Global Strategy for Women, Higher Education and Development mentioned earlier and which aims at their enhanced participation in the decision-making process.

In conclusion, what is now required is a common vision of social and human development shared by men and women alike. This vision is based on social justice and accords women their rightful place in decision-making:

"The essential task of the 21st century may well be to forge a new partnership between men and women in dealing with the present and in shaping the future of our personal and public agendas." (A Blueprint to Leadership: 19)

According to this vision, all leaders - whether male or female - become key agents of change for the creation of a new society. Therefore, they are no longer adversaries but full and equal partners in this important endeavour.

The World Conference on Higher Education must clearly articulate the profound desire of women to forge this new social partnership.


Strategies for Future Action

To promote advocacy concerning the access of women to higher education and their participation in this sector:

1. UNESCO should establish an international observatory on women and Higher Education to monitor their access, participation, and presence in decision-making

2. International NGOs should undertake a critical review of legal instruments to ascertain effectiveness with regard to higher education

3. NGOs, specialized or interested in women and higher education, should pursue training to perfect their advocacy skills in the field of gender at international, regional, national and institutional levels

4. Via NGOs specialized in higher education (e.g. regional rectors' associations and conferences), a Charter of Commitment to Gender Equality should be drawn up for signature by institutional leaders

5. UNESCO should support initiatives to evaluate and follow-up the 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995). These may include symposia and regional activities and a special meeting should be convened in 2000.

To promote the presence of women at the decision-making levels of higher education and their employment as graduates

6. Institutions should set up a senior committee to ensure that goals concerning gender equality are attained

7. Equal Employment Opportunity Offices should be established in universities and higher education institutions to monitor the progress of women academics and administrators (e.g. appointment to chairs, HOD posts, senior management posts etc.)

8. Career orientation offices and graduate placement services should adopt special measures to ensure that women students are fully informed of opportunities and obstacles with regard to gender in different professions

9. Higher education institutions and NGOs (notably those representing women and students) should make optimal use of role models and pathfinders as a means to inform and advise women students concerning their career choices. Special attention should be given to fields where women are underrepresented (e.g. sciences, engineering)

To promote action research and training

10. he number of UNESCO Chairs and UNITWIN networks which promote the gender dimension in areas of higher education should be increased

11. UNESCO and other agencies to set up mobile teams of gender experts able to encourage endogenous capacity building at national and institutional levels

12. In certain contexts and instances, quota systems may be considered desirable as a means of moving towards full gender equality

13. A Code of Good Practice in each region should be elaborated to illustrate the promotion of gender equality across different cultural contexts

14. NGOs specialized in higher education and women should run extensive training sessions for students and recent graduates, both men and women, on feminine leadership with a view to creating a more human society

15. The principle of Lifelong Learning for women should be strongly supported and appropriate measures adopted to to permit them to continue their studies, to re-enter the workforce and to harmonize their professional and personal responsibilities.

Goals for 2010

1. By 2010, a country's enrolments in higher education (i.e. both post-secondary education for the 18-24 year old age groups and mature students) should reflect targeted maintenance or increase in the number of women enrolled:

e.g. maintenance of 50% or more in countries where this is the case;

a target of 20-30% increase in countries where the enrolment of women is low.

2. University chairs, professorships and head of department posts should be filled by men and women on an equal basis. As many women now hold the required qualifications, targets to regularly increase their appointments until the 50% figure is reached should be established. This may involve the creation of new posts.

3. Ideally, 50% of all rectors/vice-chancellors should be women. In reality, statistics show that, on average, only 5-7% of rector/VC posts are occupied by women. Institutions should set a policy to increase this figure by 25% per year till 50% is reached. A policy of alternation may be useful in this instance.

4. 50% of the members of higher education governing bodies ( e.g. university senates, national councils etc) should be women. Targets to increase their presence on a regular basis till the 50% is reached should be set.

5. In certain cultural contexts, stronger efforts are required to avoid the exclusion of women from acceding to and participating in higher education. Such exclusion denies women the right to contribute to sustainable social and human development.




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