Gender Inequality in Higher Education Settings

Literature Review

The abundance of literature provides large volumes of information on the topic of gender inequality in higher education. Parker (2015) states that the desire of women to attend higher education institutions in the 1830s and 1840s in the United States triggered a significant debate on whether women needed education. In almost half a century, Alice Palmer was appointed to the position of dean at the University of Chicago. Due to World War II, women’s leadership strengthened in the 1950s and 1960s (Solomon, 1986). Consequently, women continuously regained their active role in higher education in the 1960s and 1970s, when equality against discrimination was highly advocated in the US. However, at present, women are underrepresented in STEM, in leadership positions, and obtain unequal pay (Shabliy et al., 2020).

Results of social research show that the following are among the main gender stereotypes reproduced by society (Santamaria & Santamaria, 2015). The stereotype of “masculinity” and “femininity” asserts that a man should be active and a woman passive in public life (Kachel et al., 2016). According to the stereotype of behavior in the family, the man is the breadwinner, the head of the family, and the woman plays the role of “keeper of the hearth” (Ellemers, 2018). According to the stereotype of the “choice of profession,” certain types of professional activity are “assigned” to men and women (Ertl et al., 2017).

The issue of gender discrimination has been addressed by such legislation as The Equal Pay Act of 1963, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and The Education Amendments of 1972.

In terms of intellectual capital, women occupy lower leadership positions, engage more in humanities, and are much more likely to perform the function of “interacting with society,” while men are business managers (Kouzes & Posner, 2019). However, according to Campbell (2018), gender diversity in the workplace contributes to an organization’s intellectual capital. Moreover, the shift toward green economies requires gender equality as a foundation for the consistency of sustainability initiatives.

Scholars identify that gender disparities translate into inequality in science, medicine, and global health. Indeed, the logic of the interrelation between gender issues and social and health outcomes is validated by the “discriminatory values, norms, beliefs, and practices” that further result in diminished quality of life (Shannon et al., 2019, p. 561). Six large groups of challenges related to gender inequality in higher education have been identified in the result of the literature review. These challenges include the perception of women as a gender minority, disproportionate exposure of women to sexual assaults and workplace harassment, and gender stratification and segregation, which derive from stereotypical assigning of roles depending on gender affiliation (Weeden et al., 2017). Furthermore, the glass ceiling, which is the invisible barrier comprised of women’s stereotypically applied social and family roles that obstruct their career opportunities, discriminatory HR practices, and persistent salary inequality, are the manifestations of gender inequality (Henning et al., 2017; Winslow & Davis, 2016). Several practical approaches to reducing gender inequality in the workplace in general and higher education settings, in particular, were detected in the literature. The most frequently used ones are gender quotas and affirmative action, which are applied as a way of regulating equal opportunity and gender representation (De Lange, 2006; Maggian et al., 2020). In addition, gender mainstreaming practices and such commonly used higher education practices for gender equality as mentorship, the transformation of institutional culture, inclusive leadership, and diversity training has proved to be effective (Coe et al., 2019; Ferguson, 2018).

Statement of Problem/Purpose of Study

Gender inequality in higher education has been persistent despite deliberate measures implemented to reduce it. It is a challenging issue across all workplace settings (Jayachandran, 2015; Thébaud, 2015). However, in higher education, it has been identified as a particularly troubling issue since it might result in broader social inequalities in the aftermath (Clauset, Arbesman, & Larremore, 2015; Duong, Wu, & Hoang, 2017). A prime example of gender inequality in higher education is the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles. The goal of this study was to investigate the perspectives of current educational leaders, including administrators and faculty members, about gender inequality. The dissertation sought to identify examples, challenges, and ultimately best practices to tackle this issue in higher education settings. The leaders’ accounts of the impact of institutional policies related to gender equality were considered.

Research Questions

Four research questions were addressed in the study to investigate the problem of gender inequality in the higher education setting in depth. The first research question is How do educational leaders perceive the issue of gender inequality in higher education settings? The second research question is How do educational leaders perceive the challenges of gender inequality in higher education settings? Research question number three is What are educational leaders’ best practices to address gender inequality in higher education settings? Finally, the fourth research question is What are the possibilities of conducting training aimed at enhancing gender equality awareness and adoption of appropriate practice?

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual theory selected for the study was the Feminist Standpoint Theory, which originated from the works of multiple scholars, the most prominent being Smith (1997), Collins (2002), and Harding (2004). The theory concentrates on the investigation and conceptualization of oppression experienced by women in multiple settings, including the workplace. The selected conceptual framework allows for conceptualizing gender inequality, cultural, social, and scientific discrimination of women, gender stereotypes, and relationships between genders. Feminist Standpoint Theory was used to define and frame the key concepts and terms of the dissertation, fill the gap in the literature concerning gender equality in higher education leadership in the US and justify its methodology.


A neo-positivistic philosophy was chosen as a basis for the study’s methodology since it allows for explaining the objective reasons for the phenomenon under consideration on the basis of not only secondary but also empirical research, at the same time eliminating the potential influence of personal views and beliefs of the researcher. A qualitative approach was selected since it fits the purpose of the study and allows for investigating the phenomena and their social context. Since the study involved the researcher’s communication with people and collection of their stories, the research had the elements of a narrative study. The site of research was internet-based since the participant recruitment, sampling, and data collection were conducted online. The participants were representatives of academic leadership across the US with membership in a Facebook professional group.

Data Collection

The method of email interviews was selected due to its multiple advantages, including convenience, time efficiency, cost-efficiency, and freedom of opinion sharing. Moreover, the quality of the data provided by email interviews is generally comparable to that offered by other, more traditional methods. The potential participants comprised the population of faculty members and administrators who were recruited by means of an invitation posted in a Facebook group. Non-probability sampling, which is also referred to as voluntary or quota sampling, was applied to select eligible participants following data saturation. Ultimately, 13 faculty and administration representatives were included in a sample. The respondents were representatives of both genders, with 31% of male participants and 69% female; White Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic individuals aged between 30 and 54 participated in the interviews. A relatively small sample of 13 participants was validated by cost and time constraints. However, the qualitative data retrieved from the participants was sufficient for the purpose of the study.

Data Analysis

The methods for data analysis included the interpretation of email interview transcripts. The respondents’ answers provided within the four blocks of interview questions were analyzed using the method of thematic analysis. No software was used since manual coding using MS Excel was sufficient to process, code, and analyze the content of the collected data. As for the challenges that were faced during the process of data analysis, there was possible bias in interpreting some vague responses due to the remote mode of interaction between participants and the researcher. However, the findings of the study allowed for categorizing data into eight themes related to gender inequalities in higher education.

Theme 1: Disproportionate Gender-Based Discrimination against Women

The research findings reveal that there is a high prevalence of gender inequalities in higher learning institutions, which are predominantly applicable to female staff, especially those of a lower-ranking positions. Notably, male participants denied having experienced gender-based discrimination at all. However, women reported both experiencing and witnessing gender inequality in their workplace. The importance of this theme is in evidence-based identification of women’s oppression in a higher education setting.

Indeed, as Participant 1 stated, “I constantly see blatantly disrespectful attitude of male instructors and even some professors towards female coordinators and laboratory assistants.” Thus, the data respondents generated vividly demonstrates women’s disproportionate exposure to discrimination in comparison to their male counterparts.

Theme 2: Stereotypical Perception of Women as Inferior to Men

Female staff members have been revealed to be addressed as unequal to men. The male staff members commonly treat women with disrespect from the dominant position, asserting that women hold lower and unequal positions. This tendency has been identified to be originated from persistent gender stereotypes. The continuous superiority expressed by men in their interaction with female colleagues has been explicitly reported by female participants. Respondent 2 reported that in her work environment, “male employees allow themselves pretty obscene jokes in relation to female staff – I mean assistants, etc. They treat these girls as if they are stupid dolls.” Respondent 4 stated that, unlike male postgraduates, female postgraduates “are not treated seriously, as future scientists.” Thus, the data obtained during interviews demonstrate that men take a superior biased position when interacting with female colleagues.

Theme 3: Women’s Age as a Factor of Exposure to Discrimination

Although not recurrently, the issue of age as a determinant of women’s exposure to gender discrimination has been mentioned. The importance of this theme is validated by the identification of the increased threat of discrimination against young female staff, which obstructed their career opportunities and workplace safety. As stated by Participant 6, “older women (above 50), if they have scientific credentials, are not subjected to gender-based discrimination.” Therefore, younger women are more exposed to discrimination than their older counterparts.

Theme 4: Women’s Credentials and Position as a Factor of Discrimination

The findings revealed that in many instances, there is a relationship between women’s high position in the organizational hierarchy and the decreased level of their exposure to gender discrimination. This theme is important due to the identified Subjectivity and fluidity of gender discrimination depending on the position. Participant 1 stated that “discrimination unlikely will be present if you are a rector. There is a kind of threshold after which a woman already is not perceived as a woman, just like a professional.” Thus, in the higher education workplace, women in lower positions and with fewer credentials are more likely to be discriminated against, while females at top leadership positions are not commonly subject to gender bias.

Theme 5: Gender-Based Barriers for Women’s Career Promotion

As the analysis of respondents’ answers demonstrated, women face multiple barriers when entering the higher education workplace and when pursuing career promotion. The theme’s importance is related to the detection of factors obstructing women’s career advancement, which might be used as a means to find a solution to the problem. As mentioned by Participant 5, “for woman, it is more difficult, and barriers are gender prejudices. Furthermore, as I am Hispanic, for me, those barriers were “complemented” by racial biases also. They see in me a Chicano, not a scientist…” Therefore, the glass ceiling, gender bias, stereotypical attitudes toward women, and the intersection of gender and race are the main identified barriers women face when pursuing a career in higher education.

Theme 6: Implications of Gender-Based Discrimination

The findings reveal that gender-based discrimination and inequalities have significant negative implications for both individuals and organizations. As data showed, the consequences include deteriorated university culture, productivity, impaired teamwork, loss of talented staff, and setting the wrong example for students at an organizational level. As for the individual implications, they include psychological distress, diminished self-esteem, and obstructed career opportunities. The identification of persisting outcomes of gender inequality vividly demonstrates the need for timely addressing of the problem. To present a piece of evidence, Participant 2 revealed that the issue “negatively affects general culture at the University and educational effect on students. It deprives many talented women of the possibility to realize their potential, with benefit for themselves, their university, and society.” Since most of the participants had similar views, it is implied that gender inequality has a lot of negative implications for the victims and the overall stakeholders, including the students and staff in the higher learning institutions.

Theme 7: Diversity Training and Its Effects

Diversity training was one of the highly focused areas in the study. The participants provided significant information on the adoption of diversity training and its effect in their institutions, which revealed that almost none of the participants’ universities had any diversity training implemented. However, the importance of this theme is validated by the detected perceived effectiveness of gender diversity training as a means of reducing gender discrimination. Like the rest of the respondents, Participant 2 was supportive of the use of diversity awareness training as a tool for addressing the problem. She suggested that “people should be explained what is diversity in practice and what are its benefits. There should be understanding that gender stereotypes are harmful for all.” Thus, as participants stated, higher educational institutions do not provide training for awareness about gender biases, while the need for such training is evident.

Theme 8: Other Solutions to Gender Inequalities

Apart from awareness training, there are other solutions that can assist in addressing gender inequality. As the analysis of the collected data revealed, they include an improved talent management system, intensified research of the problem, improved culture for diversity, and updated legislation. The importance of the theme is validated by the evidence-based identification of the need for systematic organizational change to reduce gender inequality throughout the higher education setting. The participants provided multiple considerations on the effectiveness of alternative solutions to the problem. Respondent 6 revealed that one “cannot fix the picture with quotas. Moreover, a policy of artificial balance will definitely lead to perturbations in the effectiveness of the university.” Thus, the efforts of Universities to ensure gender equality are not enough. In addition to ‘double standards,’ there is a formal approach to the matter of lack of leaders’ care in creating diversity environment. As participants emphasize, the top management should intensify their efforts and change their vector in addressing gender inequality issues.

Impact of COVID-19

The breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively influenced multiple spheres of life on a global scale. Conventional processes have been substituted by remote and online alternatives to ensure minimized interpersonal contact, which has altered the learning outcomes and attitudes. However, the present study has not been influenced by social distancing measures. The chosen data collection method of email interviews was planned regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why there were no limitations associated with the disease breakout and the outcomes of the present study. Since there was no face-to-face contact, there was no risk for contamination. Finally, since the general perspective on the problem of gender inequalities in higher education was prioritized throughout the research, the influence of the pandemic on the issue was not taken into consideration.

Impact of Social Justice Issues

The process of sampling was aligned with the equity and inclusion criteria to ensure that the sample includes representatives of both genders, different age groups, and diverse ethnicities and races. The recruited participants’ ethnicity/race were analyzed, and participants were categorized accordingly to ensure that White Americans, African Americans, and Hispanic representatives of higher education faculty were included in the study. However, other ethnic groups were not represented due to the insufficient diversity of respondents who gave consent to participate. Thus, the ethnic and racial diversity of the sample is representative of the population of individuals who agreed to participate in the study.


There are several limitations to the study. The study gathered the personal perspectives of participants, which is why they are likely to be subjective and can reflect personal bias (Cohen et al., 2017). However, bias is unavoidable in research. Voluntary sampling can lead to the recruitment of people with specific experiences and perspectives, which may result in self-selection bias. However, since the study aimed to investigate personal opinions, voluntary sampling suffices. Another limitation is a relatively small sample; however since the study was not intended to be generalizable and investigate opinions and solutions. Finally, the specifics of email interviewing make it difficult to verify the participants’ responses, ensure their honesty, and prevent them from participating twice.

Ideas for Future Studies

The research findings reveal that the education leaders in higher learning institutions are aware of the existence and the magnitude of the problem of gender inequality. Suggestions are made on the best practices that the leaders feel would assist in addressing the problem better. Moving forward, researchers should try to consolidate the findings and provide insights on how the suggested practices can be applied in learning institutions. For instance, researchers would investigate the practices adopted by institutions considered to be doing well in terms of gender equality, inclusivity, and support of diversity. The studies, in this case, could adopt a comparative approach or case studies. The results of the study can serve as a foundation for further theoretical comprehension of the issue and designing of necessary regulatory steps.


In conclusion, the study aimed to investigate the perspectives of current educational leaders, including administrators and faculty members, about gender inequality. The data was collected, analyzed, and the research findings compiled. The discussion reveals that the various institutions are aware of or have witnessed or suffered as a result of gender inequalities. Issues of gender segregation, sex assault, discrimination, and workplace harassment have been raised substantially to unveil women’s disproportionate exposure to gender bias. Strategies deemed suitable for addressing the problem include awareness training, policy for upholding gender equality, intensified mentorships, and inclusivity at all levels in the learning institutions. It is also recommended that in the future, researchers should focus on the development in uncovering how the best practices can be applied in the institutions.

Application to Practice

The purpose of the training is to assist in enlightening the leaders on the various aspects of the problem and the possible strategies for optimal outcomes in eliminating the problem. The training of leaders is aimed at increasing their awareness and knowledge of matters of gender equality. After the background enlightenment, the training will offer insights on practical strategies to assist in addressing the issue of gender inequality in higher learning institutions. The program of training will contain both theoretical part and practical exercises – thus, the attendants will learn gender theory and try to apply it in practice, with the relevant reflection and correction.

The training to the leaders and managers in various positions in higher learning will be provided with four tips on pertinent concepts, the legal provisions, and the challenges of gender inequality. According to the first tip, which is the definition and the legal background of gender inequality, gender equality is a right in the United States, and no institution or individual should deny the enjoyment of this freedom. This implies that every leader and manager within institutions of higher education must work towards guaranteeing gender equality within the ranks of the university. The second tip on the forms of gender inequality in higher learning institutions asserts that knowledge of discrimination manifestations will help in its detection and elimination. The third tip concern the negative effect of gender inequality, the understanding of which helps reduce gender bias. Finally, tip number four, identifying the need and benefits of upholding gender equality, should be used to motivate gender mainstreaming.

Several practical strategies have been generated to guide training. Firstly, one of the practical strategies is playing a role of leadership by laying down stepping stones towards equality. Secondly, through scaling up change by leading by example and collaboration, organizations will sustain positive results in gender equality. Thirdly, the strategy of upholding gender mix and inclusivity policy will ensure systematic improvement. Fourthly, it is imperative to constitute an independent complaints committee on gender inequality and inclusivity issues. Finally, the leadership should unceasingly work on a dynamic checklist on the problem of gender-based discrimination.


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