Women, higher education and leadership

As a male-dominated society we are uncomfortable with women, despite their academic brilliance, leading institutions.

Muhammad Hamid Zaman January 27, 2014
The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

Pakistan has been fortunate to have women in high leadership positions, which is both exciting and inspiring. From the head of the government to the head of parliament to the Oscar winner, they have been able to break many glass ceilings. Yet, the near complete absence of women in one key area necessary for national growth, sustainability and development is rarely discussed.

There is little debate about the importance of higher education in Pakistan’s future. Yet, we often fail to recognise that nearly all institutions of higher education in Pakistan are headed by men. A list of leading national universities, as compiled by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), paints a grim picture of this reality. A quick survey of these institutions and their heads on the HEC website is quite telling. Nearly all institutions from the long list of institutions on the HEC website are headed by men, with just a couple of notable exceptions. These exceptions being Karakoram International University, Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur and SZABIST (depends on how you look at political versus academic leadership). This is a dismal state of affairs. It is particularly problematic given that in many institutions, particularly medical institutions, the number of female students outnumber male students. The fact that women head women universities is a moot point.

The pathetic state of leadership in higher education and a lack of women leaders are problematic on multiple fronts. First, it paints a picture of a complex, hierarchical, male-dominated society, where the incoming students are largely female, while the leadership stays in the hands of men. It is also fairly common to see female students outranking their male counterparts in exams and overall university standings. Yet, this success and brilliance never get translated into leadership. Out of the 60-plus co-educational institutions listed on the HEC website, two are headed by women. Clearly, we as a male-dominated society are uncomfortable with women, despite their academic brilliance, leading our institutions. This may be uncomfortable for us to accept, but comfort is not a pre-requisite for truth.

An equally important point to note is that many academic institutions often have department heads as women, both in the sciences and in social sciences. Yet, when the time comes for leadership of the institution, men are overwhelmingly favoured by the decision-makers. Whether it is cronyism or simply the aggressive male-dominated politics that happens in the corridors of power, I do not know. What I do know, and is well documented in academic literature, is that women leaders are more likely to understand the social and cultural demands of our female students, who also make up over half of our student body. Women leaders also act as positive role models for the students who may decide, or be forced, to give up on their dreams due to social pressures and unreasonable expectations of their families and society at large. A good balance of women and men leaders of our institutions will also guarantee that national policies are fair, encouraging and conducive to creating the next generation of scholars, leaders and innovators from all sectors of society.

While there is little doubt that there is a crisis of leadership in higher education, not all is lost. Not too long ago, many a man in rural and sometimes even in urban Pakistan, did not think that their daughters or sisters should get higher education. The number of male students to female students was substantially higher. Fortunately, we have made progress in addressing that problem. The ratio of female students in higher education continues to grow. This progress of thought needs to be applauded, but more importantly, it needs to be replicated in leadership at all levels. We should be prepared to reform ourselves so we can create a better and a more inclusive tomorrow.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th,  2014.

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Butt sahib | 9 years ago | Reply @Rania : Of course. Because higher education is only supposed to be about discipline. Yeh qaum danday key baghair nahi sunti.
Rania | 9 years ago | Reply This is amazing --I teach at a "major" university in Pakistan and last time I brought this up to my Dean, he told me that it is unimaginable. He said that we need "strong" (aka men) leaders for the undisciplined students.
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