Women’s access to Higher Education

Jahir Calvo

In this article Jahir Calvo, of the Panama University of Technology, analyzes women’s access to higher education as a crucial component in the development process.


Throughout history, women have had only a limited role in society with restricted opportunities (Vanderslice and Litsch, 1998). The latter fact, highlighted in this article as ‘the women’s issue’, prevails even in this new era, where we found that gender inequalities continue to primarily disadvantaging this group (ESU, 2008).

Education -that nowadays has been recognized by a number of international conventions as a human right and a development imperative-, is one of the spheres that has suffered this women’s issue. As pointed out by UNESCO (2012), the preference to males over females in education has been a marked feature since ancient societies, practice that has shaped today’s gender disparities in this sector in virtually all countries.

Papadópulos and Radakovich (2005) note that higher education (HE) was precisely the best environment for reproducing such gender disparities in education, since this level was not considered a space properly ‘feminine’. From this it follows that access of women to this level of education has gone through a story of a long struggle. Many adversities for women arose. However, they have not remained silent and have fought actively since centuries ago in order to change such exclusion.

The first World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education published by UNESCO (2012) gives proof that trends towards change are on the race. As the report states, in the last four decades an almost entirely reversion of the historical process of exclusion of women in HE has occurred and they have gained some more or much access to this level of education. Notwithstanding this, at barely three years of compliance with the deadline set for the HE sector in the goal 5 of the Dakar Framework for Action 2000 of the Education for All (EFA) movement, and in the target 4 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the same UNESCO (2012) report has identified two regions in which the HE system persists to be unfair to women, showing still great disparity in disadvantage for them. These are: South and West Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa.

In this backdrop the present research work captures and presents a first set of considerations regarding the women’s access to the HE landscape, in order to gain an insight into the phenomenon. With this aim, the author seeks to create awareness about the importance of the issue, as well as stimulate further reading and research on the topic for those of us who are interested in becoming agents of change in benefit of an educational system free of discrimination and unequal treatment for this twenty-first century.


The importance of women’s participation in education

Education is recognized by UNESCO (2012) as “a fundamental human right – one that all individuals are entitled to enjoy whatever the circumstances in which they live – that also brings important benefits to human society as a whole” (p. 8). To achieve faster these benefits, states De Mcpherson (1999), it is necessary the participation of men and women on an equal basis. In that sense, stresses the author, keeping women away in all aspects of the development process only by reason of gender, is a waste of valuable resources, even more when they constitute half of the population. The position of the UNESCO (1998a) in this regard is that women have the right to the same opportunities as their male counterparts; therefore, they also have to be seen as part of the essential human resource base of every nation.

The women’s issue presented above has been clearly evidenced throughout history in the entire world. As stated by Vanderslice and Litsch (1998), women have had only a limited role in society with restricted opportunities. Even in this new era, this harsh reality somehow remains true, and gender inequalities continue to primarily disadvantage women, who suffer much more from the discrimination that occurs to both genders (ESU, 2008).  The education sector, including its highest level in its ladder, meaning HE, has been also influenced by ‘the women’s issue’, even though the academia has been perceived itself as progressive part of society (ESU, 2008).

Relatedly, the importance of women’s participation in education is critical (UNESCO, 1998c). Dundar and Haworth (1993) cited that “education of women is important not only from the angle of equal education opportunity between the sexes, but also for the substantial social and economic returns to female education that can be achieved by raising women's productivity and  income level, producing better educated and healthier children, and reducing fertility rates” (p. 1). Vanderslice and Litsch (1998), in turn, expressed that women who have increased education are more aware about opportunities for themselves. They are more self-confident, open minded and more competitive, added the authors. Apart from that, point out Kelly and Slaughther (1991), “through qualifications and credentials secured through the higher learning, women would equip themselves for all manners of professional positions, entering the market place and political arena with the same advantages as men” (p. 3). Taking into account these perspectives and context, Bonilla et al. (2005) concluded that women, through their participation in education, are becoming then agents of change.


Story of a long struggle

As stated by Papadópulos and Radakovich (2005), traditionally, HE was not a space considered properly "feminine", being one of the best environments to reproduce gender inequalities. Only men were the ones that had access to this level of education as part of their successful integration into the public sphere and social recognition, while women were invisible in the private sphere and assigned to the tasks of reproduction, and family and home care.

According to Itatí (2006), women were in principle excluded in HE since the creation of the first and oldest university in the world, University of Bologna in Italy. As explains the author, such discriminatory practice had its roots in a 1377 Decree of this university which stated that woman was considered the prime reason of sin, the weapon of the devil, the cause of man's expulsion from paradise and the destruction of the old law.

In her piece of work, titled Women’s access to Higher Education, Itatí tells us about the existence of two periods in relation to women's access to HE. In the first period, few women accessed in an exceptional way, while others when disguised as men. The second period, which the author calls a systematic process, the access was as gender.

The researcher points out that despite the Decree of the aforementioned University of Bologna, a few aristocratic women were able to enter the same university from the late Middle Ages. In the XVIII century, a great debate about the ability of women to access university education, caused that some claimed the right of women to education and knowledge, arguing that men and women have equal capacities and that ‘the mind has no sex’, while others refused to this, and emphasized the roles that men and women have in society. In this climate of debate, the author reports also that two women studied and graduated assuming a masculine identity.

Turning now to the second period characterized for being a systematic process that considered the conceptualization of gender, Itatí notes that it started in the XIX century as a slow but steady process, the same that was accompanied by growing demands and feminist struggle for equal rights for both sexes. The U.S. was the first country to participate in the process, which then expanded into Europe, reaching later Latin America at the end of the century. In almost all these regions, the first graduate women were doctors, reports the researcher. Once within the system, the discussion on the participation of women in HE became, among others, in a discussion about the type of study that best correspond to the feminine nature. Many barriers had to be overcame by women, first to gain access to university studies, second to graduate, and finally to practice the profession, since each one of these steps did not necessarily imply the other, as were the case of men. Throughout this process appeared many detractors, who argued on women’s physical, intellectual and moral inferiority; and that the Mother Nature made man rational and woman emotional. Despite this, women did not remain silent, and went to universities, became professionals in fields that did not represent an abrupt break with the conceptions of gender at that particular point of time.  Undoubtedly, these first tertiary educated women clearly perceived discrimination for being female, reason that led them to fight actively in order to change this situation (Itatí, 2006).


Trends towards change

Undoubtedly, the status of women has been a matter of international concern for decades (ECLAC, 1999). During this time, things have changed and women in most countries of the world have gained some or much access to HE, level at which UNESCO (2012) recognizes women enrolments have seen the greatest increase. The evidence shows that this tremendous progress -sometimes described as a silent revolution-, started centuries ago. In the opinion of Kelly and Slaughther (1991), this progress is considered as a hallmark that has totally changed gender representation in the HE landscape over the last decades, not only because the gradual exponential increase in the numbers of women receiving tertiary education worldwide, but also because women has gained admiration when exceeding men in grades, evaluations and degree completion in several fields of study [Buchmann et al., 2008 (cited in UNESCO, 2012) and Papadópulos & Radakovich, 2005).  Undoubtedly, stresses UNESCO, this “should be seen as a positive development, especially given the spillover effects that benefit the individual, households and societies” (UIS-UNESCO, 2010, p.71).

Roughly speaking, Bosco (2009) assures that the progress reached has been the result of the development of human rights and the democratization of societies. From the UNESCO viewpoint, this has been the result of the changing values and attitudes related to the role and aspirations of women in society, the higher levels of schooling that women are requiring in order for them to attain social mobility, their need for higher incomes, and the ongoing diffusion of ideas on the subject of gender egalitarianism across countries (UIS-UNESCO, 2010). The research work carried out also notes the contribution done by international gender agendas from organizations such as the United Nations and UNESCO which have been especially effective in areas of advocacy and have developed normative instruments, resolutions, declarations and recommendations to assure and advance, among others, the gender equality in education.

These above factors, among others, have led to a point of almost entirely reversion of the historical processes of exclusion cited in previous sections. In the meantime, HE gained momentum as a key player in the consolidation of the structures of equal opportunities between men and women, changing the preconceived role that women should be marginalized and subordinated, to a situation in which they have autonomy and the possibility of intervention in decision processes (Bosco, 2009). From the World Economic Forum viewpoint, this indicates that we are at a unique turning point in history, a stage in which we note that the issue of gender parity has became more pronounced as never before (World Economic Forum, 2010).

A review of latest trends towards change in women’s access to HE reported by UNESCO (2012) in its first World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education demonstrates the expansion at an unprecedented rate for women in HE from 1970 to 2009. As stated by the report, during this period women have been the principal beneficiaries of the HE expansion phenomenon in all regions, growing their participation from 8 to 28 percent, in comparison with men that went from 11 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2009; thus, shifting gender disparity from male to female dominance. According to Rama (2009), such trend towards change in women’s access to HE will continue over the coming decades, even though it is possible to assume that in the long run it will follow a slower pace.

Following the above line of analysis from the UNESCO (2012) report, figure 1 notes that in 1970 the Gross Enrolment Radio (GER) was higher for men than women in all regions, with the notable exception of Central and Eastern Europe. As stated by the report, and as it can be also seen in figure 1, by 2009 four regions (North America and Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, and East Asia and the Pacific) had reached the point where the GER favored women, only two region continued to have men advantage (sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia), and one region showed parity (Arab States). From the regions showing disparity, it is noted that North America and Western Europe had the largest GRE favoring women, while sub-Saharan Africa had the largest favoring men.




Figure 1. Gross enrolment ratio in HE by region and worldwide, years 1970 and 2009

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, cited in UNESCO, 2012, p. 77.


Expanding the discussions of gender differences in HE over the last four decades, the UNESCO (2012) report also analyzed the situation in terms of the changes of the Gender Parity Index[1] (GPI), measure that in this case represents the women’s GRE in relation to men’s GRE. As pointed out by  the report and as shown in figure 2, the worldwide GPI rose dramatically from 0.74 in 1970 to 1.08 in 2009, the latter value that falls within the range of parity defined by UNESCO (between 0.97 and 1.03), thus, indicating a global achievement in this regard, slightly in favor of  women. What is interesting to note from figure 2 is how regions in the last four decades have strived to achieve gender parity in favor of women, as indicated by an adjusted GPI greater than 1.03. From only one region with an index favoring women in 1970 (Central and Eastern Europe), the figure shows three more with this characteristic in 2009 (North America and Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Central Asia); thus, accounting the majority of the regions. However, a different pattern is found in South and West Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa, where the HE system persists to be unfair to women, showing still great disparity in disadvantage for them. This female under-representation in these regions could be the result of the low levels of national wealth (UNESCO, 2012) and the difficult social setting (Dundar & Haworth, 1993) that characterizes the countries that are part of the same.




Figure 2. Adjusted gender parity index for gross enrolment ratio in HE, 1970–2009

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, cited in UNESCO, 2012, p. 77.


Analyzing the data from the perspective of the various education levels, the UNESCO, (2012) report notes that women have reached parity with men in earning Bachelor’s degrees. In Master’s degrees, they have an edge over men, accounting 56%. However, a different story is found at the highest levels of education (Ph.D.), where they only account for 44%.

Turning now to gender differences in various fields of study, the Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 notes that women are overrepresented in the humanities and social sciences and significantly underrepresented in science, technology and, in particular, engineering (United Nations, 2010). However, scanning through the rich literature on the topic, it is broadly argued that women is making have also made tremendous progress by entering into fields they did not have much presence before, due to the traditionally conception of male-dominated fields. According to Papadopoulos and Radakovich (2005) the progress reached means the beginning of a process for overcoming some of the stereotyped barriers, giving the welcome to a new phenomenon of cultural transition of great significance for equalizing gender opportunities.


Concluding remarks

  • Women, on an equal basis as their male counterparts, are part of the essential human resource base of each country that contributes to its competitiveness and sustainable development. Keeping them away only by unfair reasons of gender is indeed a waste of this valuable resource, as stressed by De Mcpherson (1999). Consequently, adds the World Economic Forum (2010), they must be treated equally with the same opportunities as men, if a country wants to grow and prosper faster. The latter confirms why UNESCO (1998a) highlighted that the entire gender issue has gained worldwide attention as a crucial component in the development process.
  • Despite that nowadays voices of all women everywhere have been acknowledged, human rights have been developed in favor of them, societies have been subject of democratization and changing values processes, and international gender egalitarianism agendas have been settled, the World Economic Forum (2010) assures that we still need a true gender equality revolution. From the UNESCO viewpoint –other of the  international organizations that have been especially effective in the areas of advocacy and aims to foster a gender-inclusive culture-, this revolution implies, in more or less, a public recognition that innumerable obstacles and challenges exist and need to be tackled (UNESCO, 1998c).
  • Education constitutes one important sector that deserves special attention when tackling these obstacles and challenges. It has helped in reducing the gap and is empowering women to take their full place in the world of the 21st century, where multiple internationally agreed development goals should be reached with their help.
  • Non-discriminatory education that could benefit both women and men is the key for keeping the promise of education for all. The mind has no sex, so it is important the recognition of the equal rights to women for all levels of education, including HE, the latter sector where women are becoming agents of change (Bonilla et al., 2005).
  • Even though HE was in its beginning the best environment for reproducing gender inequalities, due to its conception as a space not considered properly "feminine" (Papadópulos and Radakovich, 2005), nowadays, it has been recognized as a human right and an essential tool for achieving equality (UNESCO, 1995) due to its imputable high impact on the future of a society. Thus, the evidence here strongly supports a process of an almost entirely reversion of that historical exclusion, and we have witnessed a gradual exponential increase in the numbers of women receiving tertiary education worldwide.
  • However, such fantastic figures are often only a mirage of what actually happens in the HE system, argue Kiss et al. (2007). It is true that female enrolment has actually increased, but it focuses, among others, on academic programs associated with the roles women traditionally exercised. In that sense, the authors wonder whether this is the equality and equity we need.
  • UNESCO (1998b) has recognized that indeed, various socio-economic, cultural and political obstacles continue in many places in the world to impede their full access and effective integration into HE.
  • Achieving the latter is not only about access to learning, but much more broadly, of challenging the learning environments, the curricula, the attitudes, the gender ideologies in both education and society, and wider political, economic and social considerations (UIS-UNESCO, 2010).
  • The analysis carried out revealed that the basis of the women’s issue is strongly linked to gender stereotypes and old paradigms that still prevail. According to De Mcpherson (2000) the old paradigms are the most difficult barrier to deal with. However, stresses also the author, in the same way these paradigms were learned, they can be unlearned and surpassed, and others conceptions more equitable or just can be encouraged.
  • The progress reached so far by women in the HE sphere, and underlined in this research work, means the beginning of a process for overcoming these stereotyped barriers and old paradigms, giving the welcome to a new phenomenon of cultural transition of great significance for equalizing gender opportunities (Papadopoulos & Radakovich, 2005).
  • We should no forget, however, that equalizing gender opportunities in HE not only refers to women. As stated by De Leon (2004), it would be desirable to encourage also men to participate more actively in this level of education, since in the long run we will be producing a new gap between both sexes.
  • It appears that current efforts are not enough, and urgent priorities remain for renewing processes of systems and institutions that strive for strengthening the role of women in this sector, and their contribution to social development in general (UNESCO, 1998a; UNESCO, 1998b).
  • UIS-UNESCO (2010) recommends at all governments, parliaments and other decision-makers, HE institutions, the international community, civil society and other partners to take stock of the rich body of evidence of the phenomenon, to make gender equality the hallmark of all education policy and re-affirm our commitment to education and gender equality. In this regard, it is important to go beyond any rhetoric and involve policies and programs with measurable results. Furthermore, men and women should work together and in partnership towards the common goal of gender equality around the world.
  • Finally, it is worth noting that the rich literature resorted in writing this article has confirmed that women and gender studies have been developed worldwide, raising awareness about women and gender issues and occupying a prominent place as a catalyst in enhancing their participation in many spheres, including HE. According to UNESCO (1998b), these studies should be promoted as a field of knowledge, strategic for the transformation of HE and society.



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[1] The GPI is adjusted in the UNESCO (2012) report to present disadvantages symmetrically for both genders. Box 4.1 of this report provide more information about the indicator (See pag. 66)

About the author

Jahir Calvo has a bachelor degree on Electromechanical Engineering and holds a Graduate Diploma in Top Management from the Panama University of Technology. He also holds a Specialization in Higher Education Didactics. In 2009, he was awarded with a dual scholarship from Panamanian Government and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to continue his education in Germany, in the International Master Programme in Higher Education Research and Development offered by the International Centre for Higher Education Research at the University of Kassel.

He has experience in the higher education field, specifically in the coordination, implementation and evaluation of researches and technical studies in the areas of university planning and statistics. Among his areas of professional interest highlight the evaluation and accreditation processes in higher education.

For further information about this article, contact the author at the following e-mail address: jahir.calvo@gmail.com


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government