Women are held back from top academic careers in South Asia

Women are kept low on the leadership ladder. Rajiv Ashrafi, CC BY-NC-SA

While women are increasingly entering the global academy as undergraduate students, they are having less success in securing leadership roles in higher education. This is a recurring problem in countries such as the UK, but it is even more pronounced in regions such as South Asia. Only 3% of the people in vice-chancellor level positions in India are women and Nepal does not have any.

As part of a recent study for the British Council, we interviewed 23 (male and female) academics from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – where 21.4% of university vice-chancellors are women – on what they saw as the barriers to getting more women into leadership positions in universities.

While there have been female heads of state in the region – Sheikh Hasina is the current prime minister of Bangladesh and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in Sri Lanka was the first female prime minister in the world in 1960 – women are largely still identified with the domestic sphere. There are potent cultural messages about what constitutes gender-appropriate behaviour, with leadership and authority related to hegemonic masculine roles.

Away from the limelight

There is also a cultural belief among some that women should not have seniority or authority over men. Women in leadership positions are seen to disrupt the symbolic order and traditional power relations. In some instances has been related to particular cultural understandings of Islamic religion.

Many women, in South Asia and elsewhere, can also be uncomfortable with seniority, or having to prove their worth to unsympathetic, and often-hostile critics. The vulnerability of leaders to allegations of bribery and corruption were also mentioned by several of the people we interviewed. This negative visibility was thought to deter many women from seeking high-profile roles.

Gender-based violence – both actual and symbolic – is also a major concern in the region. Not only does this damage women’s health and well-being, but it also jars with the assertive behaviours required for leadership. For example, one Indian respondent told us that the system of arranged marriages turns women into passive objects to be evaluated, rejected or accepted. They are chosen, not choosers.

Class and recruitment

Social class and caste intersected with gender to determine which women could enter leadership positions. Women from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds often reported family support and cultural capital that helped them navigate education and employment opportunities. Opportunities for leadership in higher education were highly uneven across the region, and most often associated with urban elite families.

The appointment of leaders can often be a political process, explicitly or implicitly, requiring lobbying and the construction of highly visible public profiles. This often works against women who can be excluded from influential networks and coalitions because of codes of sexual propriety.

There is also a lack of programmes in South Asia to develop women’s leadership. Successful senior women discussed how they had had to learn on the job, or seek out their own development – often overseas. There were no formal mentoring arrangements, very few development programmes (apart from the Association of Commonwealth Universities Gender Programme) and no structured capacity-building or career advice.

There have been some moves to change this, including locally-driven projects such as the Centre for Gender Studies at Sri Lanka’s University of Kelaniya. However, many initiatives have come from the global North, such as the IKEA Foundation’s scholarships for the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. While this can represent an important redistribution of resources, some of the academics we interviewed expressed concerns about interventions requiring a buy-in to Western values and power relations.

Although some higher education policies in South Asia, such as recent laws in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India, suggest an awareness of gender issues overall, there has been an absence of specific policy texts on gender equality. Gender was sometimes mentioned in relation to the need to increase the participation of women students. But the absence of statistics on the gender of staff meant that progress was not being monitored or managed.

Universities in South Asia aspire to enter the top 100 in global league tables. Yet gender equality is not seen as an indicator of quality. But equality is quality, and that investment in women in the global knowledge economy will yield rich returns.