Academics seek support network

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2011, 12:00am

Women have called on the British Council to set up an international network to support women, who aspired to leadership in education, after hearing how they were failing to translate their superiority as students into career success.

Dr Mary Stiasny, deputy director of the Institute of Education in London, said that once girls had equal access to education, they now normally went on in greater proportions than men to complete higher education. However, in Britain, only 10 per cent of vice-chancellors were women. The recent gains of women in education could be illusory, she suggested.

The session she chaired, 'World education: dominated by women?' heard from speakers in Hong Kong, Oman and Nigeria.

Dr Auhoud Albulushi, head of research and studies department at the Omani Studies Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, challenged preconceptions about the oppression of women across the whole of the Middle East. 'GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] government policies guaranteed equal education rights for both women and men,' she said. In Oman, they emphasise education for women and preserving their identity. Women wore the veil, and participated, she said.

While there was an equal number of places for men and women in publicly funded higher education in her country, women outnumbered men in the private sector and at graduate level, the latter by 6,841 to 4,787. 'Boys want to go into military positions or are working. Girls go to university,' she said.

But being a working woman in higher education was not easy. 'I have duties and work. I have to be professional. But in our culture there are a lot of other duties women have to do, not just in taking care of children and a husband, but the whole social system.' She also saw a danger that Omani women had become complacent, because they had not had to fight for their rights.

Su-Mei Thompson, executive director of the Women's Foundation, Hong Kong, said that while 54 per cent of students in tertiary education in Hong Kong were now women, that advantage was not translating into success in the workplace. Only 14 per cent of senior positions in academia were held by women, while in the corporate world only 2 per cent of CEOs and 9 per cent of board members were women. There were no women vice-chancellors or presidents, and just two women deans out of the total of 52, she said, quoting Women's Foundation research.

'Given that women in Hong Kong are better educated than ever before, it's frustrating that the improvement in educational opportunities ... has not translated into economic outcomes,' she said.

Stereotypes needed tackling, more companies needed to introduce family-friendly policy and government needed to ensure more affordable childcare was available to allow more women to work.

'More than anything, society needs to stop devaluing part-time work and we need to stop equating career success with a strictly linear career path,' she said.

In Nigeria, enrolment in higher education was still tilted in favour of men in the majority of disciplines, according to Professor Charity Angya, vice-chancellor of Benue State University, Nigeria.

Overall, women comprised 40 per cent of admissions, with marked variations across the country. Among academic staff female participation was even worse.

'Women are found mainly in lower teaching and administrative positions.' Affirmative action was needed to ensure greater participation of women at management level.

'Strengthening women's networks in higher education will ensure greater visibility,' she added.

Women attending the session called on the British Council to set up such a network. Jenny Hamilton, of University of London, said: 'When women reach certain positions there are not enough support mechanisms for them.'

However, participants from two other Muslim countries argued gender was not an issue. A woman from the United Arab Emirates said every organisation in her country provided creches for children of working women, ensuring they could break the glass ceiling.

Professor Anwar Hussein, of the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, went further, questioning whether Western democracies could provide the right environment for women to thrive.

In his country, women were highly respected and held the positions of prime minister, opposition leader, foreign minister and labour minister, he said.

The British Council is now considering the recommendation to set up a network.