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UNESCO Report Outlines Gender Inequality in Higher Education

While there is an improvement, higher education institutions have their work cut out for them in line with providing equal opportunities for gender equality among staff and students alike.

Gender inequality in education is still an issue, according to the data presented in the UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC) report.

The report, titled “Women in higher education: Has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities?” was published on March 8 in line with the International Women’s Month celebration.

Key Points at a Glance

  • Female enrollment in higher education tripled globally from 1995 to 2018.
  • In 2018, women teachers in tertiary education comprised 43 percent.
  • A UNESCO-IESALC report stated that the number of top universities that are led by women is increasing. 
  • “Women need to be influencing the agenda if they want to overcome inequalities,” said educational specialist Dr. Woohyang Chloe Sim.

“Such research provides important and timely evidence from which to develop targeted policies and programs to address the needs of women in higher education—and to implement reforms that are genuinely inclusive and gender responsive, ” said UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education Stefania Giannini.

While female enrollment in higher education tripled globally from 1995 to 2018, there still remains a large gender gap in education. “Regardless of this increase, there are concerns about gender equality regarding recruitment, retainment, and promotion of women in universities,” said the UNESCO-IESALC report. 

It also highlighted the lack of women “at the top” of the global education industry. In 2018, women teachers in tertiary education comprised 43 percent. In 2020, women university researchers around the world comprised only 30 percent. 

Unfortunately, the numbers also correlate with gender inequality in the labor market. The report suggested that due to current economic, social and political factors, women often end up “in less lucrative jobs of income and status.”

There is also the issue of wage gaps. The report revealed that while there are more female students than male students in higher education institutions in 26 out of the former 28 EU countries, the women’s unadjusted average earnings are lower than men’s in all 28 countries.

In Canadian universities, there is the issue of the large pay gap between male and female professors. A CBC News article discussed the numbers presented by Statistics Canada: “…the wage gap between genders is a pervasive trend across all Canadian universities except for three—OCAD University, a Toronto art and design school, plus Capilano University and the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C.,” stated the article.

All in all, the report concluded that despite the fact that females constitute for half of the entire population, they are still underrepresented in higher education institutions.


While the gap remains, it is worth nothing that higher education institutions around the world are stepping up in their initiatives in closing the gender gap. It starts with higher education institutions acknowledging gender disparity in education.

According to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021 on gender equality, a university in Saudi Arabia tops the list when it comes to higher education institutions’ “research on the study of gender equality, their policies on gender equality, and their commitment to recruiting and promoting women.”

Four institutions in Australia are part of the Top 10, with two from the United Kingdom, and India, Pakistan, and Ireland contributing one each.

Source: Times Higher Education

Also, the UNESCO-IESALC report stated that the number of top universities that are led by women is increasing. This is important to note as the report recommended for higher education institutions to serve as places of opportunity where more women can be trained and encouraged to become leaders. 

The gender differences in education and how institutions respond to them has a direct effect on the number of future women leaders, movers and shakers.

“In light of this, higher education institutions should take stock of this situation and serve as the ideal platform for encouraging women to become leaders, ultimately taking advantage of increased female leadership,” the report said.

Dr. Woohyang Chloe Sim, a lecturer at Waseda University in Japan and an educational specialist on the Arab world, commented on the report: “Women need to be influencing the agenda if they want to overcome inequalities.”


The UNESCO-IESALC report shared the following specific policy recommendations for higher education institutions and policymakers:

  • A coordinated effort by universities and  governments to collect and share data on female participation in higher education.
  • Better implementation of diversity policies and programs to increase women’s full participation in higher education.
  • Continuous assessment of diversity policies as well as of the outcomes of women’s participation in higher education.
  • Mentoring and empowering women to reach leadership positions.
  • Wider use and enforcement of strategies for the prevention of and response to violence against women, both on national and higher education institutions level, following best practices such as the ones promoted by UN Women.
  • Development of pay transparency policies and initiatives, both on the national and higher education institutions level. 
  • Development of initiatives and programs to help students make informed choices, free of gender bias, about their future fields of study and career.
  • Development of strategies and campaigns (e.g.,fairs,  forums) to enhance female  participation in traditionally male-dominated careers and improve  stakeholders’  understanding and participation in this regard. This might include career orientation  to  deconstruct false images of STEM and their biased connection to gender stereotypes. 
  • Development of gender-sensitive orientation with professional training in  gender-responsive guidance for lecturers and counsellors.

While there is indeed greater focus today on how gender affects education, the labor market, and society in general, higher education institutions are reminded of the major role they play in the achievement toward building a world which fairly presents everyone, regardless of gender, with equal opportunities.

Read more:

Data Sources:
Women in higher education: Has the female advantage put an end to gender inequalities? (2021, March 8) UNESCO International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000377182

Cummings, M. (2020, September 28) Pay gap between male and female professors continues to plague Canadian universities. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/gender-pay-gap-persists-at-canadian-universities-1.5739466

Number and salaries of full-time teaching staff at Canadian universities. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=3710010801&pickMembers%5B0%5D=1.1&pickMembers%5B1%5D=4.3&cubeTimeFrame.startYear=2019+%2F+2020&cubeTimeFrame.endYear=2020+%2

Impact Rankings 2021: Gender Equality. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/rankings/impact/2021/gender-equality

Hurtado, M. (2021, March 12) Gender inequality in higher education persists. University World News. Retrieved from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210312130746862


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