In many parts of the world, men dominate the higher education sector. A 2022 UNESCO report found that, globally, fewer than two out of five senior academics are women. In an earlier report it showed that less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.
Ghana is no exception. The country has made some progress in improving gender parity and inclusion through various national policies. But this progress has not extended to jobs in the higher education sector. In 2009, drawing on data from six of the country’s public universities, the regulator for tertiary institutions, National Council for Tertiary Education reported that just 19.5% of academic staff were women.
Our recent research suggests these figures have not improved in the past few years. We set out to understand why so few women occupy academic positions in Ghanaian universities. We did this because understanding the reasons will help efforts at developing appropriate policy responses.
Our findings showed that traditional gender norms were the main barrier to Ghanaian women pursuing academic careers. There are set ideas in Ghanaian society about what women can and should do. Examples include the fact that women are seen primarily as caregivers and mothers rather than as professionals seeking careers. Entrenched ideas about what women can or should do is a major issue because it evokes negative gender stereotypes. Many women have in many circumstances internalised these stereotypes and shared them. In turn, this has contributed to the low numbers of women academics in Ghanaian universities.
The gender composition from nine Ghanaian universities based on data from the Ghana Tertiary Education Commission showed that:
Only 10.2% of all full professors – the most senior academic level – were women
Women accounted for just 14.2% of those ranked as Associate Professors
Only 13.4% of senior lecturers were women; the figure was 22.8% for lecturers and 26.4% for assistant lecturers.
These numbers reflect similar numerical trends elsewhere in the world. For example, in Australia, women held 54.7% of lecturer ranks, 46.8% of senior lecturer ranks, and only 33.9% of women held ranks above senior lecturer. In Nigeria, women represented only 23.7% of academic staff in universities in the 2018/2019 academic year. In Sierra Leone, out of the 1779 full time academic staff only 267 were women representing only 18% of the total academic staff .
What women told us
We interviewed 43 female academics who represented a variety of academic disciplines categorised into three academic domains. These were biological/agriculture sciences, humanities and social sciences, and engineering/Information Technology.
Respondents included 3 professors/associate professors, 4 senior lecturers, 29 lecturers and 7 assistant lecturers. The interview questions were centred on participants’ own experiences and events within their work environment and the wider society. We also asked about female employment participation in higher education.
A number of respondents said that society expected them to have children while they were still young and that there was a perceived age limit for getting married. Education was only valued up to a point, as one respondent explained:
Everybody would want to see their child complete (a) first degree and once you are done with that you are virtually on your own. A lot of us would want to get married right after and that’s when you are lucky to have been grabbed whilst you were in school. And the next thing you have in society is that you get married and settle. And once you get married, in the first year everybody is expecting you to have a child. If you are deferring your childbearing to pursue education, society will raise a lot of concerns.
Others said that being highly educated limited their prospects of marriage. Ghanaian society felt men should care for women rather than women having a career of their own or being more successful than their husbands.
An interviewee told us:
… usually (in families) the man is known as the bread winner, so it is just normal that they will sacrifice the woman’s education for the man to improve and to be more economically secure to be able to take care of the family.
Cultural and societal norms meant that men were viewed as being better suited to teaching at a university level and forging careers in academia. Women, on the other hand were considered to be better teachers at the basic education level.
The interviewees also told us that, in their experience, academic institutions were unaware of the bias against them.
An interviewee told us:
… Many of our institutions are gender-blind in the distribution of PhD scholarships and other career development opportunities. They do not even know that the small number of women lecturers in the departments and faculties is a problem and that they need to do something urgently to address it.
This is known as gender blindness. It shows that, even with the rise and widespread dissemination of national policy actions on gender equality, inclusion and grassroots activism, changes in behaviour and attitudes have not reached all institutions.
There is a great opportunity to alter social structures to improve employment outcomes of women in the higher education sector – starting from societal norms, where attitudes and behaviour need to change.
This requires a multidimensional approach including social reconstruction through advocacy, social change activism and legislation. While the state should be driving legislation and social change advocacy, gender-based civil society organisations, universities, families and individuals also have a role to play.
The limited number of women occupying academic positions in Ghanaian universities undermines government efforts and national policy actions designed to improve gender equality in the workforce across the different sectors of the economy. Research has shown that there is significant value in a diverse gender mix in employment. It can help to achieve social justice and social inclusion with major economic benefits to the economy.
Changing society’s expectations is crucial. But Ghanaian universities should establish transparent gender-neutral policies towards recruitment and promotion.