Ethiopia is a patriarchal society with marked gender differences in many aspects of life, including education. Ethiopia ranks 173rd out of 189 countries on the Gender Development Index, which considers health, education, and command over economic resources of female and male citizens (UNDP, 2018). Gender differences in Ethiopia are more dramatic than those for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole (UNDP, 2018). The government has promoted education for all in recent decades, with additional policy efforts to increase the number of university-joining female students (FDRE, 2004) to address the “historical legacy of inequality and discrimination suffered by women” (FDRE, 1995, p.93). Enhanced enrollment to higher education may not translate to equal access or student success, and female students in Ethiopia experience lower retention, lower performance, higher dismissal rates, and lower graduation rates than their male peers (Semela 2017; Abraha Asfaw, 2014). Despite long-held constitutional promise and some affirmative actions, gender equality in higher education is far from reality (Asfaw, 2014).
This study used an exploratory qualitative design to elicit student perspectives and experiences on gender equity of higher education at a public Ethiopian university. Student-produced gender-based educational challenges, and solutions for fostering a more inclusive and equitable education experience, may inform government and institutional policies and practices to broaden participation and improve experience and learning outcomes of female students. Policy making in Ethiopia is often top-down and non-participatory. By considering students’ voices, this study attempts to make policy development inclusive, participatory, and a two-way process generating ideas from the ground-level. We produce recommendations to improve the effectiveness and focus of affirmative action and related policy efforts that are responsive to students’ lived experiences.
Focus group discussions (n=10) were facilitated with 100 (F=39, M=61) 3rd year undergraduate students from diverse disciplines, colleges, and ethnic-groups at a mid-size teaching and research public university in Ethiopia during July 2019. Purposeful sampling was used and department heads, key university teachers, and student leaders were engaged for in-person recruitment. Special attention was given to recruitment of female student participants, who tend to be underrepresented among student leaders. Male students were included due to the strong belief that they were part of gender-related issues, and can be part of the solution, as well.
Pre-written questions guided the group discussions about equity and equality in education, gendered learning experiences, and student-generated solutions to creating a more gender-equitable pedagogy and learning environment. Researchers and students were free to express themselves in any of three languages so as to be responsive to language affinity: English, Amharic, or Afan Oromo. Multiple forms of data capture were used including audio-recording of focus group discussions, student-produced written summaries, and researchers’ notes. Asking participants to synthesize their discussion involves participants in data analysis, reducing potential possibility of misinterpretation or misrepresentation of ideas by the researchers. Conceptual analysis was used to identify emergent and pre-defined themes from the various information sources. Some aspects of the study including analysis were guided by equity pedagogy (Banks & Banks, 1995) and intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989).
Students generally perceived that the university’s overall instructional service was inequitable and that equity issues manifested in all pedagogical dimensions (instructional methodologies, assessments, contents, and learning environment). Among major factors contributing to inequity were the use of pedagogically- and gender-uninformed instructional and assessment strategies; effect of macro-contexts (e.g. family, culture, religion, economic); gender stereotypes; unequal representation in curricula; and gender-irresponsive student services. Students reported that the university service was guided by same service provision which was not only unequal and inequitable approach, but also ignorant of past and ongoing multi-faceted female challenges, thereby reinforcing and exacerbating existing gender inequalities.
Inequity in curricula included disproportionate representation of females and males’ perspectives and experiences in quantity and quality in instructional and assessment materials as reflected on case studies, examples, and predominantly male-authored textbooks and references. Inequity in learning environment is related to the underrepresentation of females in numbers and positionality in academics, student clinic, and cafeteria; insufficient on-campus lighting which restricts females’ ability to move around safely and to access study spaces at night; and inflexible schedules with some of these services.
Student-produced solutions to creating more gender-equitable education included addressing gender stereotypes, using pedagogically-informed instructional methods that promote balanced roles and participation among group members, and providing specialized or separate university services. Students acknowledged the role of the university’s Gender Office in hosting gender-focused holidays like International Women’s Day but wished to see continuation of such activities throughout the year and mainstreaming of gender issues throughout the university. When discussing identity intersections and macro-contexts, the participants reported that Ethiopian higher education system reinforce privilege of urban students, non-Muslim students, and students belonging to ethnic majority groups. Compared to male students, female students from afore-listed identities experience even more pressure at the intersection of two nonresponsive systems: internally from non-responsive education system, and externally from male-dominated culture (Crenshaw, 1989).
University students routinely experience gender-based inequities in Ethiopia. Inequities are abundant across settings from classroom pedagogy to learning environment and are largely unaddressed by faculty or university administration, in the students’ eyes. Student-generated solutions and participatory approaches to data analysis enables us to suggest comprehensive approach to improving education quality in general with a particular focus on increased participation of female students in the classroom, and implementation of pedagogically-informed and gender-responsive teacher training programs. Effective use of a variety of active learning methods and assessment strategies is more likely to address diverse learners’ needs, encouraging fuller participation in a format that recognizes students’ individual strengths. The university may include the university’s Gender Office in a Senate (the university’s major decision-making body) and be concerned with addressing gender stereotypes pervasive among its community. Finally, the university may consider intersectionality to fully understand the differing effects of multiple identities on female and male students and tailor its interventions accordingly.