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Breaking barriers: addressing gender inequities in African universities


Research led by IDRC partners in South Africa and Ethiopia reveals critical gender disparities in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields within African universities. Evidence from studies encompassing 60 universities across eight African nations identified three key issues:  

  • Women are dropping out of STEM fields much more frequently than their male counterparts. 
  • Women are experiencing rampant microaggressions because of their gender. 
  • Institutions either lack gender-focused policies or fall short of fully implementing such policies.

Why is gender inequality in STEM a concern? Solving complex African problems requires applying science into real-life innovation, and the issues listed above create a hostile environment for women and their ideas. STEM systems risk losing out on important knowledge if they are not fully welcoming of women scientists and their unique insights and approaches. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his message marking the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024, “From climate change to health to artificial intelligence, the equal participation of women and girls in scientific discovery and innovation is the only way to ensure that science works for everyone.” 

To address this gap, IDRC is funding researchers who are studying gendered trends in STEM fields and the barriers of bias that make science systems less accessible for women than men. The aim of these projects, all part of the Gender in STEM (GIST) initiative at IDRC, is to provide evidence-informed recommendations to help universities and key convening bodies design policies and practices to ensure national science systems are inclusive and equitable for all. This article explores the findings of two projects in Africa.  

Research highlights

  • Universities in Africa need to implement policies and practices that put gender at the forefront of their institutions.
  • ARUA and many ARUA universities based in South Africa need to develop and implement gender policies.
  • ARUA universities need to implement and monitor the effectiveness of policies and practices that can address gender-based microaggressions.
  • Ethiopian public universities need to institute gendered-focused programming to address women’s high rates of attrition from STEM undergraduate and graduate programs.

Female students in Ethiopian public universities are more likely to drop out of STEM 

Between 1998 and 2018, the Ethiopian government put policies in place to increase the proportion of women in STEM fields of study, employment and leadership. These policies included affirmative action in admission and hiring, scholarships for female students and leadership-development programs for women faculty. However, little was done to investigate the impact of the program until an IDRC-funded project led by the University of Gondar began in 2020. Researchers digitized and analyzed 20 years of enrollment and graduation rates, faculty employment and leadership participation data at all 45 public universities in Ethiopia.  

The study concluded that while policies have been increasingly effective in improving rates of enrollment in STEM-fields (females enrolled in engineering increased from 20.9% in 2008 to 27.3% in 2018), they are not sufficiently addressing the barriers faced by women once admitted.  For example, over this same period, 25% of female students at public universities were dismissed or dropped out of their studies compared to 8% of male students. As such, women remain underrepresented in post-graduate studies and academic careers with the least representation in senior leadership positions. According to the study, women make up only 11% of board members in Ethiopian public universities, 12% of middle-level positions and 17% of lower-level leadership positions. 

The study recommends that Ethiopian public universities institute gendered-focused programming to address women’s high rates of attrition from STEM undergraduate and graduate programs.   

Gendered microaggressions infiltrate research-intensive universities in Africa 

The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) is composed of the continent’s most-research intensive universities. These institutions are intended to be trailblazers and role models for other universities in Africa. Yet, findings from a study carried out by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) shows that the environment at many of these universities is hostile to women. Researchers interviewed 27 senior women academics in eight of ARUA’s 16 institutions and found that most women in leadership positions had experienced gendered microaggressions at some time during their academic careers. These microaggressions ranged from assumptions of traditional gender roles (e.g., only women academics being asked to take minutes or make tea) to insulting and belittling behaviour, to feelings of invisibility, difficulties in making contributions in meetings, or being overlooked for leadership roles more often than their male counterparts.  

The project also analyzed which ARUA universities have gender policies. Seven of the 15 universities included in the study did not have one, including some of the continent’s most highly ranked universities in South Africa, which instead have anti-discrimination policies in place. In addition, ARUA itself is also missing a gender policy. While anti-discrimination policies are important, by overlooking gender policies, institutions can fail to understand how gender discrimination negatively impacts teaching and research at their institutions, fail to collect gender-disaggregated data and overlook issues of sexual harassment.  

The study recommends that ARUA universities need to develop, implement and monitor the effectiveness of gender-specific policies and practices to address the gender gap in the network. 


The findings from the University of Gondor study have been shared with officials within Ethiopian education systems, such as at a workshop with the Ministry of Education, and conference presentations at many of the public universities that served as sites for this investigation. The ASSAf and GenderInSITE study team is also working to ensure their findings are used by individual universities, national governments and regional higher-education bodies to strengthen gender policies surrounding microaggressions in the higher-education space. For example, their findings were shared with deputy vice-chancellors of research from the 16 ARUA universities and ARUA officials. The hope is that key knowledge users in the African higher-education spaces will take these findings on board and use them to help end gender inequities. 

Next up from IDRC’s Gender in STEM initiative: we explore research findings from some of our partners in Latin America, and how they can be used to address gender inequities in their national research systems. 

Contributors: Hannah Whitehead, IDRC Research Award Recipient, Gebeyehu Begashaw Abate, Assistant Professor in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Gondar, Director for the Centre of Strategy and Policy Studies and Katie Bryant, Program Officer, Education and Science, IDRC.