Philippines leads Asia pack in promoting female academicsPosted on November 30th, 2012 under Art & Living Achievements
By Liz Gooch, The New York Times
Emerlinda Roman [viaThe New York Times]
When Emerlinda Roman finished her term last year as president of the University of the Philippines, she had no shortage of female company occupying the top offices at other universities.
Of more than 2,100 higher education institutions in the Philippines, 39 percent, or 850 institutions, were led by women in 2011, she said, citing figures from the Commission on Higher Education.
“In the Philippines there’s general acceptance or recognition of women’s ability to assume leadership positions, in higher education especially,” said Dr. Roman, 63, who was the university’s first female president. “Men are no longer threatened by women leaders.”
But Dr. Roman and her countrywomen are relatively rare examples of women reaching academia’s upper echelons in Asia, a region dominated by much lower levels of female participation in administrative and research roles.
While the Philippines has an impressive number of female university administrators — and where women account for almost half of the country’s researchers, a figure that surpasses some Western countries — Asia in general lags behind much of the rest of the world, with women representing just 18 percent of researchers, according to Unesco figures.
But with women in many Asian countries now outnumbering men in undergraduate enrollments, researchers say it is only a matter of time before university leadership and research laboratories adopt a more female face.
Globally, women represent only 29 percent of researchers, according to a Unesco report released this year.
Venezuela and Latvia posted the highest proportion of female researchers of any country, with 55 percent.
Across Europe, it is a mixed picture, ranging from less than 25 percent in Germany, to between 35 percent and 45 percent in Britain.
The Philippines and Thailand are bright spots in Asia, with women accounting for more than 45 percent of researchers in those countries. Data were not available for many other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but researchers say they expect lower levels there.
Despite impressive gains in female student enrollment in higher education across Asia, academics say those gains are yet to result in significant numbers of women being appointed to senior research and administrative positions.
In Hong Kong, for instance, home to some of Asia’s most highly ranked universities, women represent more than half of all undergraduate students, but its universities have not yet had a female president or at least a vice chancellor.
While about a third of Hong Kong faculty members are women, according to 2010 figures, they represent just under 10 percent of vice presidents or pro vice chancellors, and less than 6 percent of faculty deans.
Fanny M. Cheung, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the number of women obtaining doctorates had only begun rising in recent years.
“It takes a while before women can be promoted through the ranks,” said Dr. Cheung, a professor of psychology. “You may find in some Western countries there are probably higher numbers of women in the senior positions partly because the proportion of women faculty has increased earlier than those in Asian countries.”
Malaysia fares somewhat better in terms of the number of female university leaders, although academics here say there is still a long way to go.
Four female university vice chancellors have been appointed since 2006. Two are now serving, including Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice chancellor of the National University of Malaysia.
“I wouldn’t say we are doing well, but we are making a start,” she said.
Dr. Sharifah, a medical doctor, said the higher education sector still fell short of the Malaysian government’s target of having women occupy 30 percent of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors. “In the public universities we should have six vice chancellors,” she said. “We only have two.”
Dr. Sharifah, 65, attributed the shortage of female university administrators to traditional ideas about men and women. “If there are two candidates of equal standing, the man will get it. If you have to choose, they will choose the man,” she said.
Qualities like assertiveness are considered an advantage in male leaders, but in women they are seen as a disadvantage, Dr. Sharifah added. “We are still expected to be passive,” she said.
But Dr. Sharifah, who said that 70 percent of undergraduates at her university were women, pointed out that the growing number of female researchers and women leading academic disciplines was promising.
“I’m getting more and more women academics even in disciplines known to be very male-dominated, such as engineering, I.T. and medicine,” she said.
While juggling work and family is commonly cited as one of the main barriers hindering women’s career advancement, irrespective of location, this is one area where some Asian women may have an advantage over their Western counterparts.
Child care is often expensive in Western countries, but affordable live-in domestic help is widely available in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Many of these places also have a strong culture of extended family support, where grandparents often help with child care.
Dr. Roman, who had live-in domestic helpers when she became a mother, said that she returned to work a month after giving birth to each of her two children, even though she could have taken a longer maternity leave.
Despite the affordability of nannies in Asia, Dr. Cheung, who spoke about the issue at a recent British Council conference in Hong Kong, said in many cases women continued to bear the bulk of responsibility for child care.
She said that a woman’s child-bearing years often coincided with the “golden age” for academics. “If you want to be a very productive researcher, you really have to think of ways to balance your responsibilities as a mother with that of an active researcher,” she said.
Dr. Roman, who now works as a professor at the University of the Philippines and is the chairwoman of the board of trustees of the International Rice Research Institute, said that extended family and domestic help enabled her to devote more time to her work, and she added that her husband was very supportive. But “when it came to taking care of the kids, looking after their needs, it was me rather than my husband,” she said, adding, “For many of my younger colleagues, that’s how it is today.”
While domestic workers are commonly found in middle-class Malaysian homes, Dr. Sharifah said that juggling work and family was still challenging for many women, which prompted her to open a child care center at her university.
A less openly discussed issue is whether a high-flying academic career presents a hindrance to women in finding a husband.
Dr. Cheung said that in some Asian countries, particularly China, women may hesitate before even pursuing a doctorate because of concern that potential spouses may find them less attractive if they are better educated.
“It takes a very confident man to be able to accept a wife who is in a so-called superior position because, by virtue of a higher degree, you will be considered more superior,” she said. “In Asia that is still a fairly strong barrier.”
Dr. Roman believes part of the secret behind the success of female academics in the Philippines lies in having a society where female leaders are well accepted.
“The Philippines has had a long history of women asserting themselves in leadership positions, and people have learned to appreciate how women work and perform,” she said.
She added that regulations and laws had helped women advance, such as a policy that requires all government departments allocate 5 percent of their budgets to support activities to help women.
“I never felt that I was discriminated against because I’m a woman,“ Dr. Roman said.
For countries looking to follow the Philippines’ example, academics believe that more leadership training, mentoring and networking are vital to helping push women into top positions in higher education.
Dr. Sharifah, who is also president of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which advises the government on gender issues, said more Malaysian women must put themselves forward as leaders and network at home and abroad.
Dr. Cheung, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said institutions needed to address the needs of female faculty members to help them achieve their potential.
“Diversity programs never catch on very much in universities,” she said, adding that institutions were often too narrowly focused on climbing the university rankings published in the news media. “They are just looking at numbers and not people.”