Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Want to improve gender equality in universities? Start by closing the policy gap: Report

Black woman university lecturer - gender equality

Universities should be setting an example for other industries on gender equality. Image: Pexels.

Ellie Bothwell
Rankings Editor, Times Higher Education
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how SDG 05: Gender Equality is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

SDG 05: Gender Equality

  • 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.

Have you read?

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?

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.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How focused giving can unlock billions and catapult women’s wealth

Mark Muckerheide

May 21, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum