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Arab Women Are Left Out of University Leadership

Editor’s note: This article is accompanied by a graphic, Country By Country, the Female Academic Leaders, in which readers can identify the current presidents of Arab higher-education institutions.

Women lead fewer than 7 percent of Arab higher-education institutions, according to a detailed survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and InfoTimes, an independent data analysis company.

Nine Arab countries currently have no female academic leaders at all: Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Qatar, Somalia and Yemen.

By way of global comparison, 18 percent of the institutions that are in the top 200 universities, as ranked by the U.K.-based magazine Times Higher Education, have female leaders. A 2017 survey by the American Council on Education found that 30 percent of U.S. college presidents are women.

Women earn the majority of undergraduate degrees in many Arab countries and make up a growing proportion of teachers at the primary and secondary levels of education in many Arab countries. But they are often missing in the upper ranks of higher-education leadership.

“There is a major imbalance within the university regarding gender equality and a clear neglect of the gender issue in a sector that is supposed to be the founder of equality in all other sectors,” said Fatima Roumate, an associate professor of international law and a researcher at Mohammed V University at Agdal, in Rabat.

“The focus is on counting the number of female and male students, and at best female and male employees at the educational institution to show a kind of interest in gender issue,” she said. “But there is no real interest in showing the administrative opportunities that are actually available to women.”

Mohammed el-Ghazali, the dean of the faculty of education at Mohammed V University at Agdal, agrees that more female academic leaders would have a positive influence on girls’ educat.

“The presence of a woman in a high-level scientific position would give girls a living role model that would motivate them to learn, to be diligent and to raise the ceiling of their dreams to high levels of leadership,” he said. Women university presidents could also “create a safer working environment for the rest of women, whether they were professors, administrators or students, in a way that would raise their productivity.”

Al-Fanar Media’s study looked at the leaders of 746 higher-education institutions in 22 Arab countries as listed by the World Higher Education Database (WHED), a global resource that provides information on higher education institutions, regulations and accreditation. Out of 702 academic institutions where Al-Fanar Media researchers could verify the leader’s identity, only 48 universities or higher-education institutes are led by women. (More about the survey’s methodology is at the bottom of this article.)

The proportion of female university leaders is less than half of the proportion of female parliamentarians in the Arab world—19 percent in 2017, according to the World Bank. In other realms of politics, women also seem to have made stronger inroads than they have in universities: There is only one female university president in the United Arab Emirates but nine women ministers who studied at universities such as Harvard, New York and Alexandria.

North Africa in the Forefront

The data Al-Fanar Media analyzed show clear progress for women in North African countries in leading higher-education institutions, compared to other Arab countries. Four out of the top eight countries in terms of the number of women academic leaders—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt—are usually regarded as being part of North Africa.

“Today, Tunisian women represent about 60 percent of the number of university students and the number of educators at various levels of education,” said Salim Qasim, president of the Tunisian Association for Quality Education (Atuque). “This percentage is constantly increasing, making the need for women’s access to decision-making positions or university presidencies self-evident.”

But Jouhaina Gherib, president of Manouba University in northern Tunisia, believes that the number of women actually decreases as the career ladder rises, “because of women’s major role and large duties toward their families in Arab society,” she said. (Arab women are not alone in being saddled with additional family duties: The American Council for Education’s survey found that 32 percent of female college presidents had to alter their career progression to care for others, while only 16 percent of male college presidents had had to do so.)

Gherib, the first female president of Manouba University, believes that women should overcome the obstacles that they face to reach leadership positions because “this increases female students’ confidence in their abilities and promotes their ambition to reach an advanced position.”

Jouhaina Gherib, president of Manouba University, in Tunisia, says opportunities for women decrease as the career ladder rises.

Egypt lags behind Tunisia in its proportion of female university presidents; it is the most populous country in the Arab world, but only 10 percent of higher-education leaders are women,

“I do not think the ratio is satisfactory compared to Egyptian women’s potential,” said Siham Ali, executive director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, a non-profit legal support and skill development organization. “The problem is not only in the ratio but in the societal mind-set that still regards women as deficient and fights them even if they have succeeded in achieving top management positions.”

Women as Leaders in the Gulf

Among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Oman leads in the proportion of female higher-education leaders. Saudi Arabia comes in a strong second, and the two countries are in the top five countries across the Arab world.

But the proportion of female leaders is still weak in Gulf countries compared to global averages. “There are many challenges that prevent women from getting an advanced administrative position,” said Khadija al-Humaid, an assistant professor at Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates. “Most of them are related to the society’s culture that always gives leadership to men.”

In Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, women are currently completely absent from the presidency of any academic institution. Kuwaiti women have a broader struggle to reach leadership positions: The Kuwait Central Statistical Bureau’s numbers indicate that that only 13 percent of top management positions in the country are filled by Kuwaiti women.

“What message can be understood when universities, unions and parliaments have a large percentage of women, but those who represent and lead them are men?” asked Latifa Hussein al-Kandari, assistant dean for female students’ affairs at a college within the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training, in Kuwait. “There are prestigious universities and unions that have not been led by women since they were founded.”

“There is a decline in the leadership capacities of Gulf women and a clear dedication to male domination of society,” she added.

Fatima al-Yatama, a faculty member at Kuwait University’s Faculty of Medicine, agrees with al-Kandari.

“It is difficult for many Gulf men to accept the idea of being led by a woman at work, especially as they grow up as governors in their homes and society,” al-Yatama said.

“We must work to change this point of view and strengthen the confidence of society in women’s capacities in the labor market and management,” she added.

Lamya Al-Haj, an assistant professor at the Sultan Qaboos University’s College of Science in Oman, takes a more positive perspective on the Gulf, and says the low representation of women in leadership positions is a global issue, not just an Arab one.

Lamya Al-Haj, an assistant professor at the Sultan Qaboos University, in Oman, says women are underrepresented globally, not just in Arab countries.

“There is a global shortage of women in top management positions,” she says, “with only 20 percent of women in leadership positions in the world, because women are also responsible for taking care of their homes and families. Gulf women run international corporations today and hold senior government positions and their absence from the administration of some sectors does not negate their role and efficiency.”

Would Quotas Help?

Some women advocate applying quotas to  ensure that more women advance to leadership positions.

“Quotas seem to be a good solution to the present reality,” said Siham Ali, of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. “It can help women reach advanced positions and thus have to prove their efficiency to gain the society’s confidence and break male dominance.”

More generally, in a commentary with the title, “Why Gender Quotas Are Necessary in the Arab World,” Asma I. Abdulmalik, who describes herself as an Emirati civil servant, says that quotas have helped propel women to a more equitable position in many countries. It was a government decision, she notes, not a people’s election, that placed eight women on the U.A.E.’s Federal National Council. “The reason for women’s marginalization is not due to poor performance or lack of qualifications or skill,” she argues, but rather due to the generational biases and barriers operating in different spheres, be they social, business or political.” Overcoming those biases will take some modest quotas, she argues, and supportive laws. Iceland, for example, has made it illegal to pay men more than women for the same job.

But Salwa Abdalla el-Gharib, president of the International Academy for Engineering and Media Sciences in Cairo and the first female Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities from 2007 to 2012, says quotas won’t help. “The quota has never succeeded in changing social concepts” she said, adding that legislative solutions won’t work either: “Diligence is the only way to reach top management positions.”

El-Gharib says she is not an idealist and personally faced discrimination during her career. Although she received a bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Helwan University’s Faculty of Applied Arts, she was appointed as a teacher at the Faculty of Home Economics. “The prevailing view was to exclude women from the industrial sectors,” she said, “but I objected and demanded my right and got it.”

Salwa Abdalla el-Gharib, president of the International Academy for Engineering and Media Sciences, in Cairo, says diligent pressure for social change is the best solution.

Others also argue that competence should be the focus when appointing university presidents. “Access to top management positions should be the culmination of a scientific and practical effort,” said el-Ghazali, from Mohamed V University in Rabat.

Politics and Gender

The majority of university presidents in the Arab region are appointed by political leaders, not by faculty election or as a result of advancing in their careers, according to a study conducted by Al-Fanar Media last year on the licensing public and private universities in 17 Arab countries.

People who belong to the ruling party or those who show full loyalty to the government are often favored, said el-Ghazali. If women are to advance in higher education, the very concept of how Arab university presidents are chosen may need to change.

The need for more women in academic leadership positions is an issue that has gotten little public debate in Arab countries, many of those interviewed for this article said. Even the reasons for why women are needed in leadership positions is not always clearly argued or grasped. But that is a void that some hope to change.

“Women are essential partners whose presence, abilities and views cannot be ignored,” said Qasim, president of the Tunisian Association for Quality Education.

Aisha Elgayar from Kuwait, and Ibtissem Jamel from Tunisia, contributed to this report. Data collection, analysis and graphic design are by InfoTimes. Data audit, fact checking and editing by Al-Fanar Media.


InfoTimes researchers began the survey by checking the Arab universities and academic centers listed in the International Association of Universities’ World Higher Education Database. Researchers checked that each Arab institution in the database had not closed or merged.

If an organization had merged, researchers made sure the new, merged institution was included in the survey.

Researchers first checked the university presidents’ names on the universities’ websites to see if they were male or female. The name was also cross-checked with other sources, such as names listed on the websites of the Ministry of Higher Education in each country or the president’s profile on websites such as LinkedIn. When enough online information was not available, researchers wrote and called the universities to determine the president’s name and gender.

Given the different organizational and administrative structures of universities in the 22 Arab countries, the first leadership position in each academic institution was included in our data, regardless of title, which can vary according to country and institution.

In the end, the survey includes 702 universities out of the 746 institutions first identified in the database where researchers were able to verify the existence of the institution and the name and gender of its leader.

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