2008 Policy Paper “Gender Equality in Higher Education”

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Today’s situation in Higher Education is far away from an equal participation of women and men in the different stages of the higher education career. The distribution of power and financial means is not the same for women and men as well as the personal benefits that result out of the education. This is a direct result of the biased situation in society, which is has a lot of benefits reserved for men, but also due to the old structures and the atmosphere within the institutions of higher education. Higher education plays a key role in shaping society and building active citizens. A lot of the people who will take powerful roles in a society have a background in higher education. This implies that a gender equal higher education has also a very huge long term impact on the gender equality within the society. Therefore ESU fights for a gender equal environment in higher education that preserves equal chances for both women and men.

ESU stresses that gender inequalities are interrelated with other strands of discrimination. This results in multiple based discrimination and requires strategies to fight the existing exclusion. It is necessary that all participants of the higher education process are aware of structural discrimination in the society and are able to recognize this discrimination within their own behavior.

ESU sees an urgent need to improve the situation of women and men in academia. Both women and men are tackled by outdated gender stereotypes, which may force them into a behavior that does not suit everybody. The choices of subjects, the expected jobs taken are often based on those stereotypes. The students who do not stick to the typical male or female behavior are likely to face unequal treatment and discrimination. The losers of the patriarchal academic system are still women. Even though they make a big number of the student population, they are rarely present in higher cycles and leading positions. Those women in higher positions earn less money and are often subject to discrimination. ESU sees the role of higher education also in creating equal opportunities for all people and therefore stresses the importance of affirmative action to overcome the actual gender based discrimination in higher education. Active measures are required in order to reach gender equality.


I. Analysis of the current situation

Gender refers to the socially constructed attributes of being female or male, or of femininity and masculinity. Society has different concepts of a female and male gender, which influences the perception of how a person should behave and act. These concepts build up an ideology, which is reflected in regulations and structure in four spheres of life: (i) the family and household, (ii) the market, (iii) the community and (iv) the state.[1]

The higher education sector, being a part of society is also influenced by the existing gender categories and stereotypes of the society. The power division of society between men and women is reflected in academia.  Even though the academia perceives itself as progressive part of society, which is the key for innovations, the reality looks different.

In nearly all European countries the number of female and male students is more or less equal. In some countries, the number of women in tertiary education exceeds the number of men.[2] This contradicts with the enormous lack of women in leading positions of the higher education sector, the economy and within politics. Even though women are in many countries more and better educated than their male colleagues, they still do not reach high positions in society and for their life. Informal structures are resulting in a “glass ceiling” that is preventing women from reaching higher positions.

The choice of subjects in higher education is strongly connected to the gender of the students. Even though the number of female graduates in mathematics, science and technology has slightly increased during the last few years, mostly men enroll in such  subjects.[3] On the other side more than 80% of the students in “education” and “health & welfare” are women. The level of doctorate students shows a very different picture. In some countries, the participation of women in this level decreases by nearly 30%.[4] As a result, women do not have access to higher positions in the same manner as men and therefore also have less access to money and powerful jobs.

Gender segregation can be found on all levels of higher education. It also comes with a very different face on the different levels. The gender stereotypes, which are present in society, create also a picture of a typical student in each subject, a typical doctoral student, a typical professor and a typical governor of an institution.  These stereotypes may force those who want to be successful in higher education to act, think and behave in a specific way. People who do not stick to the rules are likely to face discrimination and have to fight more and stronger for equal results. This affects both men and women and has a negative impact on a lot of individuals. Mostly the stereotypes are to the benefit of the men. Hence higher education has a high impact on the future of a society, as research and development are a product of the thinking and acting of it. ESU stands for a higher education area, which is free of discrimination and unequal treatment. We therefore demand special attention to measures that overcome gender based discrimination.


II. Students within Higher Education


Access to Higher Education

At first sight, there do not seem to be problems with gender inequality at the entrance of higher education. In a lot of countries, the number of females slightly exceeds the number of male students in the first cycle, which still can not be seen as a reason for neglecting gender inequalities or even thinking that this fact might lead to gender equality.  The choice of the subjects is still motivated by gender stereotypes. Usually a pre-decision is already made in school. When children choose their subjects in secondary education they are influenced by what their teachers, family and friends think. Teachers and their behaviour at school have impact on how girls and boys develop their interest in different subjects and disciplines. Teacher’s education needs to focus on the construction and stereotyping of gender in schools, as teachers need to be aware of their own prejudices while accompanying their pupils. Gender specific thinking in families has to be taken into account when a decision about a further profession, a choice of a specific school/university or branch is taken. This can only be reached with good cooperation of students, parents and teachers.

Since different professions have not the same impact on the future personal situation, the expected income and positions, the choice of a subject is more than a choice of what books to read and what content to know about. The choice should be led by a genuine interest in the field. This is only possible if the future possibilities of women and men within a specific area are equal. This precondition will be eliminated when neither sex has to explain or justify the own choice of subjects. Thus, any sort of a concept of a ‘traditional norm’ with regards to choice of subjects for either sex is to be abolished. Advertising and information of programmes has to be reconsidered regarding their gender impact. Those presentations as well as the illustration of textbooks and the curricula need to have a clear strategy to break gender stereotypes and show unusual pictures of the academia.

Entrance exams tend to strengthen the effects described above. While students have to make a decision that leaves less space for experiences and testing without losses, entrance exams are a barrier to unusual decision about future studies.  A woman who applies for an engineering programme in front of a male interview team of professors, and has to explain why she wants to become an engineer will face as many stereotypes as a man who applies for a kindergarten teacher’s programme in front of mostly female kindergarten teachers. For both of them it is less likely to enter the programme than for their gender counterparts. Open access to higher education opens more possibilities for those who do not stick to the norm and the ideas of those who are already within higher education.

The question of financing is still a main aspect for the decision on taking a course or not. Tuition fees and a lack of finances keep young people away from higher education. Experiences of several countries have shown, that the bad effects of loans and student debt are much stronger on women than on men. As women earn less money on average and expect much more often to leave their job for family reasons, they suffer much more from debt. Knowing about fees and the lack of financial support this can keep them away from higher education. Loans and interest results in higher financial burden for those who are leaving the job for family care – usually women. Therefore fees also have to be abolished for gender equality reasons. A sustainable financing of living costs is essential for a free decision of profession and subject from a gender perspective.

Duration within the institution

Students in higher education institutions are very much dependent on the lecturers and teachers as they judge on the work done by the students through exams and grades. Those decision shape the future of students very much. The presuming stereotypes of men and women are part of any judgment and teachers need to be aware of that fact. Professional education of teachers and professors must include gender awareness trainings to avoid unfair treatment of students based on gender. Examination situations are the best possibility for unequal treatment and judgment based on stereotypes. Institutions must ensure, that their examination procedures assure that all students are treated equally. Performance appraisal needs to be transparent before the exam starts. Especially oral exams should be taken e.g. by two examiners, which are gender balanced, or including  externals, in order to avoid gender bias and sexual harassment. Moreover, a legal framework has to been given, forbidding gender discrimination considering evaluations and decisions regarding study progress, access and selection within higher education. Efficient systems of complaint and appeal have to exist in order to fight encountred gender-based discrimination.

Teachers also play an important role as role models for students to take a scientific job or to proceed in the academic career. The aim of every institution must be reaching an equal relation between women and men in higher positions of the university to provide role models apart from the typical subject and job division. Thus, this also has to be a substantial aspect for the selection of experts, if they are included in the curricula.

Horizontal mobility has a strong gender specific aspect. While looking at the mobile students, a lot of countries have a bigger participation of female students abroad.[5]  This is also due to the gender specific choice of subjects that lead women more into subjects that are usually more mobile, such as language, social sciences and cultural science.  But on the other hand, the access to mobility is more restricted for female students in other parts of the world. In some countries, women are even not allowed to study or they face huge discrimination. Women in subjects, that focus on these countries and regions, face disadvantages, when mobility becomes a key issue for the future job. Institutions need to ensure that institutional cooperations are equally open for all students and that the support and counselling of the institution is supporting students in countries where even no legal equality is given.

All over Europe, 5-10% of the students have children and have to combine the child care with their studies. In nearly all countries more women than man have children while they are studying. In a vast majority of the countries, there is no special financial support for students with children. A consistent financial support is needed for the additional expenses students with children have to pay. But childcare is not only a financial problem for students but also a problem of time and availability. Childcare has to be available for students’ children during the time of classes. Flexible curricula are needed for parenting students to combine the unpredictability of childcare with their studies. Only good study conditions for student parents enable an equal division of the childcare between women and men.

Employability and scientific career

Student employment is a part of everyday life in a lot of countries in Europe. As the general gender pay gap is constantly wide in all European countries, this is the same for student work.[6] This increases the amount of work for female students or leaves them with less money. Students are often working within the institutions as tutors or student staff. At least here is a responsibility for the institution to give equal chances for women and men. Recruiting procedures should stick to the aim of reaching an equal number of male and female student staff in the institution. This is extremely important in positions, where jobs as student staff give an opportunity for further employment in the institution and an academic career.

First figures show, that the access to master’s level changes the relation between women and men in higher education. The “pyramid”, which is showing the decreasing participation of women in the academic career, gets an additional barrier through the three-cycle system. Sustainable data is crucial to find out reasons for this additional barrier and to implement measures against. Tuition fees also impact very negatively on gender equality. As fees suggest an investment in the own human capital, an unusual decision can among other things cause deep financial problems through not finding a job in a field where it is not usual to work in as a woman or a man. The gender pay gap increases the bad impact of student debt for women, as they have to pay back for a longer time and more money as their male colleagues.

Women should be encouraged to apply for research or professor positions within higher education. One way of reaching this goal would be to introduce temporary gender quotas for specific positions, in order to create gender-parity. It is crucial for the evolving of higher education that women and men are given the opportunity to engage and be successful in every field of study and every discipline, to overcome the persisting horizontal and vertical segregation.


III. Gender knowledge in education and research

Gender specific knowledge should be integrated in the curricula in all subjects. While social science is often dealing with gender studies in their field, natural science, engineering and economics lack this content in their programmes. Curricula need to be revised based on the fact, that the academic society is male dominated and often forgets women and their contributions in history, which leads to the perception of a constant and even historical lack of rolemodels. Such a perception may lead to the belief of female of not being suited for these fields. The beliefs and ideologies, which have been excluding women from participating in higher education, have resulted in a view of science and education, excluding the bodies, lives and experiences of women from being a suitable subject for research and education. In the case that such societal perceptions still persist, action should be taken to overcome them.

Gender specific knowledge cannot be outsourced in specific lectures on “gender” but has to be integrated into the average courses and seminars. The definition of employability must include awareness regarding gender stereotypes and gender based discrimination. When curricula include soft skills, gender knowledge has to be a part of those competences.

The basis for gender knowledge in the curricula is research on related fields. Without a sustainable financing of gender related research, the necessary scientific background cannot be provided. It is essential, that gender related research is funded and given a priority in the institution. Also the research teams must head for an equal participation of women and men. Researchers are role models for students and play an important role in breaking gender stereotypes.


IV. Higher Education governance

Gender inequalities do not only come up among students and within curricula, but also in institutional governance. Most governance structures are male dominated, only a very few female rectors or presidents exist all over Europe. This is first of all mostly caused by the lack of women among professors, which is often a requirement for the rector’s or president’s position.[7] The equal participation of women and men is needed in a democratic institution. Therefore ESU stresses that the legislation shall aim to reach an equal participation of men and women in the decision making of higher education. Also the institution itself has to support the participation of the underrepresented gender in all decisions. This usually affects women in the overall decision making as well as men in participating in gender politics and formal gender structures.

Quality Assurance can ensure, that the institution fulfills specific criteria regarding gender equality itself. As a good system of Quality Assurance has to come along with more transparency and includes continuous possibilities to reform, it also gives great opportunity to increase Gender Equality in Higher Education. Gender Equality should be an overall aim of the institution as well as the institution should have concrete measures and structures in place that help reaching that goal. If internal structures and measures for Quality Assurance exist, they should be supervised from a gender specific perspective. If there is any body responsible for Gender Equality in the institution, it should be involved in the Quality Assurance process.

A Gender Mainstreaming Strategy needs to be evolved in each institution. Such a strategy must cover all parts of the higher education institution, including education, research and government. The institution needs to allocate financial means and a structure, which ensures long term measures and monitors the impact of tools and gender equality work.


V. Conclusions

ESU stresses the importance of an overall gender mainstreaming strategy for the higher education sector. The strategy needs to include specific aspects to be useful:

  •     Analysing the present situation of gender differences in all areas of the higher education institution
  •     A continuous way of collecting the relevant data to monitor the impact of the strategy and its measures
  •     Clear and well-defined responsibilities for the execution of the strategy and a mandate and power for the responsible people that allows the execution
  •     Transparent decision making procedures both for the strategy itself and for the higher education institution
  •     Financial support for the execution of the strategy, that assures an implementation of all measures including the monitoring and follow up process
  •     Student participation on all levels of the strategy as well as a gender balance among the responsible actors while developing and implementing the strategy

The need of gender mainstreaming needs to be formulated on the institutional level as well as on the national level and the European level. It needs to be extended to the international level in the future. A strategy for gender equality in higher education may not be reduced to the higher education sector. Same action needs to be taken in vocational and professional training and within primary and secondary education.

ESU states that gender inequalities continue to primarily disadvantage women. The fact that women are outnumbering men in some parts of the educational sector has not yet changed that. The power division between men and women remains beneficial for men, women suffer much more from the discrimination that occurs to both genders. Therefore ESU stresses, that gender equality mechanisms mostly means to implement affirmative action to support women. Nevertheless, the gender stereotypes need to be dismantled, as they are the principle reason for inequality, prejudices and discrimination.

Any gender mainstreaming strategy needs to be connected to a wider concept of anti-discrimination work. Gender and other strands of discrimination are mutually interconnected, which needs to be reflected in the actions taken.


[1]              Based on: IWRAW Asia Pacific. Building Capacity for Change: Training Manual on the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of discrimination against Women (2001) Session 4.

[2]              Europe in figures — Eurostat yearbook 2006-07, p. 92.

[3]              Education and Culture DG: Key data on Education in Europe 2007, p. 168/9.

[4]              Education and Culture DG: Key data on Education in Europe 2007, p. 50.

[5]              Survey of the Socio-Economic Background of ERASMUS Students DG EAC 01/05, Technical Annexes of the final report, p. 17.

[6]              European Commission, DG for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities: The gender pay gap — Origins and policy responses, July 2006.

[7]              European Commission, DG for Research: She-Figures 2006.


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