• Universities play a hugely important societal role in driving forward gender equality.
  • While many institutions are succeeding as educators, as employers they are failing to make rapid enough progress.
  • A new report highlights key examples of policies, structures and activities to help universities improve in this area.

Gender equality has come a long way since International Women’s Day was founded 111 years ago. And in many ways, universities have been a positive force in this journey.

Academic research has exposed the ways in which girls and women are discriminated against, while the increasing enrolment and recruitment of female students and staff has led to more women in positions of power and more women with agency over their lives.

But universities also have a wider role to drive forward gender equality in their communities – a responsibility that is becoming more urgent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on inequalities in general and raised new barriers for girls and women, leading to concerns that most of the equity gains of recent years could be lost if there is not sufficient intervention.

Progress on gender equality in universities

In this context, a new report from Times Higher Education (THE) and the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) examines how well higher education institutions across the globe are performing when it comes to making progress towards gender equality.

The report, Gender equality: How global universities are performing, is linked to THE’s impact indicators, which are focused on understanding the progress higher education is making against all 17 of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It takes a magnifying glass to the 776 universities that have submitted data against SDG 5, which is a call to take urgent action to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Female students now outnumber male students globally; 54% of students awarded a degree in 2019 were women.

—Ellie Bothwell.

The report shows that there is much to celebrate. Female students now outnumber male students globally; 54% of students awarded a degree in 2019 were women. Although there are still fewer women in STEM subjects worldwide, several Asian countries have a higher share of women enrolled in a STEM degree than one in arts, humanities or social sciences.

The majority of universities also say they have various policies and services that contribute to the goal of gender equality, such as a policy of non-discrimination against women (89% of institutions say they have this) and provision of appropriate women’s access schemes, such as mentoring or scholarships (81%).

Gender gaps that need be addressed

But there are important lessons too. Most universities were unable to provide relevant evidence of their policies and services that support women’s advancement. This is a problem for several reasons. It suggests that there is a policy-practice gap, meaning that while certain codes may ostensibly be in place, they are not yet being implemented across the institution.

It also indicates that students and staff at universities may be unaware of the existence of gender-equal policies or the availability of services aimed at supporting women, which in turn suggests that these measures are having a limited impact. More broadly, it raises questions about how transparent higher education institutions are about their progress towards gender equality.

Leading by example as educators and employers

Universities will continue to be critical actors for change when it comes to gender equality; through their teaching, research and outreach, they can have a transformational impact on society. They can teach curricula where women are equally represented and educate students on gender competence; they can ensure that datasets in research studies include the perspectives of women; and they can help address gender inequality in wider society by engaging in outreach projects that support women with education, employment and empowerment.

But universities are also large organisations with thousands of staff, students and academics, and they should be setting a leading example for other industries by not only creating policies and services that support women’s advancement, but ensuring these measures are properly documented, promoted and implemented. They must ensure that female staff have equality when it comes to recruitment, promotion, pay, funding and workload and that women have mentors and role models.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

How can universities improve their approach?

There is no need for departments and institutions to do this alone; the case studies in our report provide useful examples of policies, structures and activities that have worked, as well as broader lessons for other universities looking to double down on this commitment.

One frequent recommendation is the importance of a comprehensive and institution-wide approach to tackling gender inequality, including support from the senior leadership team, dedicated offices, a clear distribution of responsibilities and ensuring men are involved in initiatives.

If all universities took this general approach, while implementing specific initiatives tailored to their institution’s mission and values, and also measuring and reporting on their progress towards gender equality, then they could ensure that they not only expose the ways in which girls and women are discriminated against, but also set the example for others to follow in tackling it.