Gender Imbalance in Academia – Not Unique to Sri Lanka


On 1 October 1945, the Free Education Policy came into effect in Sri Lanka and was introduced as a Bill by Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara; a former Minister of Education. As a result, generations of Sri Lankans have been benefited to be educated from kindergarten to university regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. Free and compulsory education in Sri Lanka provides equal opportunities in education for students maintaining gender equality in all primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Within such a context, in 2020, Sri Lanka received the UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education.

When considering the undergraduate admissions of the academic year 2018/2019 in universities and higher educational institutions which are under the Universities Act of Sri Lanka, out of a total of 31,902 candidates 20,418 were females. Also, when considering the percentages of students’ enrolment in the recent past, it is evident that the percentage of female students is higher than the male students (2016/2017= 63.3% females and 37.2% males, 2017/2018= 62.9% females and 37.1% males, 2018/2019= 64.0% females and 36.0% males).

However, according to UNDP’S Human Development Report of 2020, Sri Lanka has a Gender Inequality Index (GII) value of 0.401, ranking it 90 out of 162 countries considered to prepare the index. The lowest GII values are recorded by Switzerland (0.025), Denmark (0.038), and Sweden (0.039) rank in the first, second and third places respectively, while the highest GII values are recorded by Yemen (0.795), Papua New Guinea (0.725) and Chad (0.710) ranking in 162nd, 161st, and 160th places respectively.

On the other hand, according to the University Statistics of Sri Lanka available up to 2021, the female representation has been diminished in the managerial levels in academia too. When considering the overall distribution of teaching staff in higher educational institutions in Sri Lanka (2019), there are 33.1% female professors and 66.0% male professors. When considering senior lecturers, 45.4 % are females and 54.6 % are males. However, the percentages of females are higher than males in the posts of lecturer and other academic staff. It is evident that 59.3 % of lecturers are females and 40.7% are males.

There are 2974 other academics and they are considered as temporary staff. Among them 2087 are females. Hence, a clear gender imbalance is visible in the hierarchy of academic staff of Sri Lankan State universities. Moreover, when considering the total administrative staff in all the State universities in Sri Lanka, out of 502 permanent staff, 301 are females. However, a vast gender gap can be identified in the ‘Other Executive Staff’. Out of the total ‘other executive staff’, there are only 43 females. (University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka, 2019).

According to a study conducted by Mitroussi and Mitroussi in 2009, gender was shown to be a determinant factor for the ascendance in the hierarchical ladder in the education sector of all levels in the UK and Greece as well. Regarding academia, researchers have identified that the lower the education level, the more overwhelming the presence of female lecturers in the academic hierarchy. In contrast, the percentage of women drops sharply in the higher levels in the academic hierarchy and administrative positions in the power structures in universities.

According to the study of female leadership in Middle Eastern Higher Education done by Alberti-Alhtaybat and Aazam in 2018, if female academics have to manage both work and home-related responsibilities, they feel a great amount of pressure to perform. Also, they have claimed that female leaders who are mothers continuously experience the difficulty of convincing others that parenthood is not holding them back, and in order to prove that and maintain their leadership they often tend to work more than necessary. Moreover, the rivalry among women; female colleagues, superiors, and subordinates are not being supportive of one another has been considered as another issue faced by female leaders in academia.

Among the Sri Lanka empirical evidence, Gunawardena and a research team in 2004 have found the widespread existence of violence against women in universities is frequently reported as a major impediment to gender equity and to women’s participation and completion of higher education. In Nigeria, serious social upheavals on campuses and danger to occupants especially from gender-based violence have been reported. In Sri Lanka, even though the practice of ragging by senior students has been declared as a criminal offence by law the practice is still widely reported and has different connotations for men and women. In South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda number of policies and programmes to challenge and combat sexual harassment have been reported.

Abalkhail (2016) has discussed the pattern of gender inequalities in Saudi higher education is linked to the twin discourses of family and religion together with the influence of patriarchal assumptions regarding gender roles. The access to education, family networks, male family members play an essential role in women managers’ lives as career facilitators. Nevertheless, the number of women who are working in higher education remains low, particularly in higher positions. The authority of male guardians is highly valued and their permission is required by organisational policy to allow women career mobility and to perform their professional roles within the public space. Segregation of physical space and interaction at work can be seen as another form of inequality where women are viewed as outsiders and direct influencing the structure of higher education: women managers are assigned lower status than men and are excluded and marginalised from decision-making positions.

However, the story of China is different. Researching the ‘women and leadership in higher education in China’, Zhao and Jones (2017) stated that Chinese higher education context continues to be marked by gendered norms. This has implications for the career advancement of female academics and consequences for reversing the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership in universities in China. Traditional discourses of gender and leadership that permeate Chinese culture were found to be strongly reflected in the societal discourse of female leaders as sensitive and emotional and male leaders as rational, decisive, unemotional, and so forth.  The constructs of feminine and masculine are positioned as opposites in defining female and male leaders, and the masculine is generally privileged while the feminine is given a lesser or deficit status. Indeed, the women do not identify themselves as leaders, despite undertaking roles that involve leadership.

Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe

(Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya)

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe