Gender Justice in 40 years: What role can educators play?

by Mana Nakagawa on 03/21/11 at 2:42 pm

Vignan Degree College Computer Lab, Telugu wiki academy session. Source: Arjuna Rao Chavala/Wikimedia

In recent years, primary and secondary school enrollments have reached an unprecedented level of gender parity worldwide; 96 girls for every 100 boys are enrolled in primary school, and 90 girls for every 100 boys in secondary schools. These gender gaps have also narrowed considerably in higher education, with women surpassing men in higher education enrollment rates around the world, with some regional exceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia.

The increasing numerical balance in educational access does have a hidden problem however, as this progress in education can mask persistent disparities in gender equality. Extensive research has shown that girls and boys experience differential parental, academic and societal expectations and opportunities at all levels of schooling and beyond. Such inconsistencies continue to reproduce gender disparities in specific fields; a well-known example is in engineering and computer science where less than 20% of women choose these fields as their major. Further, women make up less than a quarter of scientific researchers worldwide. Clearly, the propitious expansion in women’s access to higher education has not translated into other consequential aspects of gender justice.

Christine Min Wotipka, associate professor of Education (Teaching) and (by courtesy) Sociology at Stanford University, has conducted cross-national research on issues surrounding women in higher education and women in science to address these questions. At “Getting to a World Without Limits for Women and Girls: 2011-2051,” a panel event honoring the 40th anniversary of the Association of Colleges and Universities’ Program on the Status and Education of Women, Wotipka shared her perspectives on the critical challenges remaining in moving towards the idea of gender justice in education. Speaking to an audience of diverse educators and social transformation leaders from college campuses from around the country, Wotipka addressed the questions, “How can educators move us towards the idea of gender and social justice? What can educators do to address these challenges on our own campuses?”

One solution she offered is to broaden the approach to gender justice beyond the fields of gender and feminist studies programs. Gender issues can be better mainstreamed into diverse course offerings throughout different departmental programs, starting with encouraging faculty to think about gender issues within their own courses. For example, there is a growing recognition that gender analyses are relevant to all fields of scientific studies. Governmental granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health are beginning to require that funding applications address the relevance of sex and gender in all proposed research projects. Incorporating such initiatives into university course offerings would broaden the scope of students exposed to the pertinence of gender and social justice issues across disciplines.

Community Box Library, Bangladesh. Source: bri vos.

Next, “educators must begin grappling with issues of global citizenship.” In a world where rising numbers of students seek opportunities to participate in courses surrounding international topics and to study and perform service abroad, educators should promote research-driven activism. Wotipka advocates helping students to see how the analytical tools learned in classrooms can apply to their interests and efforts to smartly affect change. She further advocates the use of scientific-based research that is informed not only by Western perspectives. Exploring local-based research and collaborating with local partners are vital for creating sustainable effects of students’ research initiatives even after they return home.

Efforts to promote global citizenship on college campuses should concurrently focus on bringing in more international students to those campuses, particularly those from developing countries. In particular, Wotipka promotes increased investment in scholarships for women in developing countries in order to, “put power into the hands of those who know best.” The problems that are still facing women in developing countries will likely not be solved predominantly by Westerners. Rather, universities like Stanford must recruit more young women from developing countries onto our campuses, as they are the future global citizens with high potentials of returning to their home environments to make sustainable changes in their local populations.

Of course, empowering women is only half the equation. Increasing the participation of male allies is a vital component in making the sustainable changes necessary towards envisioning gender equality, and men need to be equally empowered to contribute to these conversations. Further, these transformative changes require the expansion of the roles of today’s and future educators. Such initiatives and visions are necessary to produce the attitudinal, cultural and organizational changes necessary for moving women’s capabilities from survival, to independence, to influence. Viewing education as part of the larger ecosystem, instead of the silver bullet, we move towards the idea of achieving gender and social justice for both women and men.


Christine Min Wotipka is a Faculty Affiliate of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and the former Director of the Institute’s Graduate Dissertation Fellowship Program. In Spring Quarter 2011 she is teaching Education, Gender, and Development with Kavita Ramdas, President & CEO of the Global Fund for Women (1996- 2010).

Mana Nakagawa is a graduate student in the School of Education. She is part of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team covering gender topics at Stanford.

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