Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Gender in Higher Education in Africa


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The struggle for social equality between men and women remains an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society, culture and politics in contemporary Africa – as, indeed, in every other region of the world. In fact, it can be argued that it is an arena whose construction is a permanent work in progress. And yet, the general, instinctive but misleading assumption has persisted, even in otherwise knowledgeable circles, that any reference to gender is little more than a code word for raising narrow, even parochial concerns that are specific to the interests of women only. In a bid to correct this erroneous instinct and, in so doing, open new frontiers of reflection on gender issues among African social researchers, CODESRIA has decided for the strategic plan period 2007–2011 to continue to build on its tradition of critical and innovative gender research by strategically focusing its annual Gender Institute on themes that will both contribute to an erosion of stereotypes about gender studies, and advance the frontiers of gendered knowledge as knowledge that is holistic.

Education at all levels in Africa is gendered terrain and gender disparities are even more pronounced in higher education. Although some strides have been made in terms of the participation of women in African higher education as evidenced by increasing female student numbers and a significant number of females completing undergraduate and graduate degrees, Amina Mama’s statement that “patriarchal knowledge is still coded into everyday practices” is still relevant in the discourse on higher education. For example, fewer women compared to men proceed to establish careers and to occupy senior positions at African universities.

In addition, the structures of many Africa Universities remain deliberately masculine, in terms of their representational structure, decision making procedures and the culture of their members. Women continue to be minorities in higher education and those involved in these institutions are fragmented and isolated for various social, economic, cultural and psychological reasons. Within CODESRIA, the gendered nature of higher education was recently bought to the fore in December 2008 at the Dean’s conference, held in Yaoundé as part of the General Assembly.

Nineteen deans from different African countries representing the faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences took part in the conference. Of these, only one was a woman. The absence of female deans at the conference was because the pool of female deans in African Universities is small. In addition to be a quantitative minority, these women face tremendous gender related challenges at personal and professional levels which affect their freedom of movement to attend conferences. The problem of gender in higher education is a global one, though more acute in Africa. This has wider implications on the production of gender sensitive knowledge at a global level.

The challenge involved in levelling the gender terrain in higher education involves coming up with strategies that bring about re-organisation and transformation of African Higher education Institutions in a permanent way that opens up opportunities for career development and career advancement for women while recognising their multiple gender specific roles. To this end, the 2009 CODESRIA Gender Institute will focus the attention of laureates on the understanding of factors that influence and impede women from fully participating in higher education as well as understanding the gendered nature of the structures and character of the higher education environment in Africa. Laureates will also be encouraged and expected to come up with new and innovative studies/findings that address transformative strategies linked to research, curriculum design, management and decision making. These strategies should challenge laureates to think of ways of deconstructing the complex dynamics of injustice and post colonial inequality in African higher education, while taking cognisance of the challenging environment that confronts African higher education institutions in the 21st Century.

The objectives of the 2009Gender Institute are to:

1. Provide a platform to African scholars with an interest in undertaking theoretical and empirical research on gender relations in African higher education;

2. Familiarise researchers with the latest literature in the field and through this help consolidate an African perspective on the theoretical debates taking place on gender relations and/in education;

3. Sharpen researchers’ gender analytic skills, as well as promote an African feminist methodology in the understanding and assessment of decision making in African higher education institutions and understanding that gender disparities that go beyond quantitative to qualitative inequalities;

4. Encourage African knowledge production on the gender relations that underpin education and institutional building, in so doing, contribute to the emergence of a critical mass of networked intellectuals with an active research interest in deepening research on this theme.

5. Encourage researchers to come up with transformative strategies that challenge past and current gender and other injustices in African higher education systems.

Why is the topic of women’s participation in higher education relevant?

Senior academics, deans, professors, vice chancellors, registrars, leaders of teachers’ unions play a very critical role in institution building. Their contribution to the design of gender sensitive institutions is invaluable at many different levels.

The visibility of women in senior positions acts as catalyst that motivates younger women to play a more influential role in institutions of higher learning thereby changing persistent post colonial injustices. Although the number of women obtaining higher degrees in African universities has increased with time, very few women are retained within institutions of higher learning and even less of them progress to senior positions of decision making. Most institutions of learning have old and patriarchal ways of operating. It is difficult to challenge these structures from lecture rooms only. For real change to occur, it is necessary to address gender issues at the highest levels of institutions by involving women in decision making in teaching, management and union activities. The persistent lack of senior female academics is a reflection of serious gender disparities at all levels of education in Africa. There is a systematic bottleneck, based on gender which needs to be understood, addressed and changed.

November 5 2009