Breaking Glass Ceilings in Higher Education


By Linda Flynn and Rebecca Jeudin

Statistics for many regions around the world show that although women make up a significant percentage of undergraduate student enrollment, they hold only 10 percent of leadership positions in higher education. Globally, men outnumber women in higher education management, at about 5 to 1 in middle management and 20 to 1 at senior management levels.

Why is this an issue? While women have excelled in post-secondary settings, the opportunities for women to be in leadership positions continue to be fraught with challenges. Women often experience invisibility, exclusion, isolation, and lack of support within higher education, which translates into fewer women holding key positions, according to UNESCO. In addition, studies also show that men prefer to mentor other men, which further diminishes women’s opportunities to leverage networks to serve in leadership positions in higher education. Mentoring to that end plays a critical role in helping women to succeed by significantly enhancing their self-esteem, managerial skills, and income and promotion possibilities. These barriers can result in lower levels of women’s self- efficacy and confidence, reinforce the glass ceilings that prevent advancement to leadership positions, and work against higher education institutions' goals of attracting and retaining qualified women.

In Indonesia, although the number of female students and faculty is increasing in higher education institutions, the percentage of women in leadership roles continues to stagnate. While women hold between 21-72 percent of faculty positions, they only hold 6-20 percent of leadership positions within their academic institutions. To address this issue, USAID’s Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) project has been providing workshops, forums, mentorship, and coursework on leadership development to female professionals in higher education to increase self-efficacy and managerial, financial, and administrative skills. Through increasing these skills, HELM hopes to propel more women into management positions in Indonesia’s higher education institutions.

Since 2012, HELM has convened a Women’s Higher Education Leadership Forum in partnership with the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection to build a strong network of women leaders and a community of practice for sharing research on women’s leadership in higher education. These forums have the parallel aim of increasing participants’ potential for leadership roles at their respective institutions.

During last year’s forum, participants identified challenges that women face in higher education and suggested research proposals and policy development such as equal employment opportunity for women in higher education institutions and professional development trainings. An example of one of the research initiatives is the mapping of women in lecturer, professor, and top leadership positions alongside their respective educational and management backgrounds. The aim is to compile empirical data from all higher education institutions to inform the type of work required to improve gender equity in Indonesia.

Minister of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Yohana Yembise gave a powerful address at the forum and challenged women and men at universities to become agents of change: “I expect that in the future [we can] develop a joint commitment to promote Indonesian women as agents of change. One day, Indonesian women should be able to have positions as the chiefs of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government and focus their attentions on governing responsibly, free of corruption," she said.

In March 2016, HELM will hold its third Women’s Higher Education Leadership Forum, with a group of mostly female professionals from 50 higher education institutions across Indonesia attending as key participants. This year’s forum will focus on finding solutions and networks of support for women to overcome key challenges they face in higher education and develop priorities for women’s leadership skills training with the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment. The Women’s Leadership in Indonesia HE Network (JKP2TI), with initial support from HELM, will encourage professional growth of women within the higher education system.

It is important to continue empowering women in higher education — lecturers, researchers, and professors — to actively work towards breaking the glass ceilings that exist in Indonesia’s higher education institutions. As more women rise to leadership positions, they in turn will continue to empower and mentor female students and professionals in the higher education system toward an impactful and sustainable cycle of equity and self-efficacy.

Linda Flynn is an associate in Chemonics’ Strategic Solutions and Communications Division, and Rebecca Jeudin is an associate in the West and Central Africa and Haiti Division. Both are members of Chemonics’ Education and Youth Practice.

Interested in learning more? Check out Chemonics' "Integrating Gender into Education Projects" presentation at this year's Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference,  3 - 4:30 p.m., March 7.

Posted in: Education and Youth
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