IN HER OWN WORDS: Women’s Underrepresentation in Higher Education in Ghana

Higher education can improve the overall quality of life of women, including providing better access to health care, food security, good pension plans, improved job opportunities.

Sarah KyeiSarah Kyei

Growing up as a young girl, my greatest desire was to enroll in one of Ghana’s universities. This was because many young women who have had the privilege of attending universities in Ghana felt very proud of their achievements; there were very few of them at universities.

It was the norm for people to be intimidated by women pursuing higher education. I remember our male classmates in high school used to tell us that they would never marry any of us because we would be enrolling in the university and would not submit to their authority as men. Despite these subtle threats from some of our classmates, I was determined to pursue higher education because I thought it was the only way one could succeed in life.

But do negative cultural norms, traditions and religious beliefs contribute to the underrepresentation of women in higher education in Ghana? I explain below some of the factors that account for that problem and make some recommendations for change.

Why bring more women?

Universally, women’s voices are underrepresented in many critical spaces where they are needed, and higher education is no exception. According to Martha Donkor’s article “Educating Girls and Women for the Nation: Gender and Educational Reform in Ghana,” educating females is the most cost-effective measure a developing country can adopt to accelerate its rate of development.

Research has shown that more women are likely to put their savings into education, health and the general welfare of their family compared to their male counterparts, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn cite in “The Women’s Crusade.” The education of women and girls also has the potential of reducing fertility rates, early child bearing and maternal mortality.

Higher education can improve the overall quality of life of women, including providing better access to health care, food security, good pension plans, improved job opportunities, etc. But in spite of these benefits, many women in Ghana are not able to obtain higher education, due to socioeconomic and cultural barriers that keep them out of universities.

Mansah Prah’s study conducted on gender issues (“Gender issues in Ghanaian tertiary institutions: Women academics and administrators at Cape Coast University”) at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana indicated that women who are in academia have less political visibility due to their low numbers, and their needs, concerns and interests are often ignored. Prah also points out that there is no unit in the University of Ghana at this time that addresses gender equality issues.

Women and education in Ghana

Ghana is a developing country in West Africa with a population of 25 million people—51% of whom are females. The country has recently attained a lower-middle-income status with many sectors of the economy growing, including its educational institutions. As of 2010 the overall literacy rate of Ghana is 71.5%. The total male literacy is 78.3%, but that of females is 65.3%.

In order for Ghana to accelerate the pace of economic development and enhance its new status, human resource development is essential. This would entail creating more opportunities for women to develop their potential to contribute to national development.

Fortunately the government of Ghana in 1996 introduced Free Compulsory Universal Basic Education (FCUBE) at the primary school level, aimed at expanding access to good quality basic education. This led to an increase in enrollment of girls at the primary level, but at the tertiary level the numbers dropped.

According to Harry Sackey’s “Female labour force participation in Ghana: The effects of education,” school dropout rates for girls were higher than boys due to economic and socio-cultural factors.

Francis Lodowic Bartels traces the status of Ghanaian women’s underrepresentation in education to the legacies of colonization in his book The Roots of Ghana Methodism. When missionaries in Ghana opened the first girls’ school, they reinforced domestic roles for girls and groomed them to become good homemakers.

This is one of the reasons for the dwindling of the population of girls at higher educational levels; they were not trained or encouraged to aspire to the top right from the foundation level. Augustina Adusa Karikari also asserts in Experiences of Women in Higher Education: A Study of Women Faculty and Administrators in Selected Public Universities in Ghana that the universities in Ghana perpetuate the gendered division of labor: men hold most senior and high-level positions while women dominate lower-paid positions. According to Karikari the highest office held by a woman in any Ghanaian University occurred in 1996 where a woman was appointed to be pro-vice chancellor.

There are several barriers to women’s education in Ghana:

  • traditional familial beliefs and the cost of education
  • women’s traditional responsibilities in the home and time burdens
  • school environment barriers
  • teachers’ attitudes and practices

Traditional family beliefs and cost of education

According to Karikari, even though education at the primary level is free, technically it is not, because individuals have to bear the cost of textbooks, lunch, school uniforms, supplies, registration fees and cost of transportation. These costs can be expensive for some families and can prevent them from sending their children to school.

In a situation where the family cannot afford to send all children to school, the boy child is given preference over the girl. This is because there is a widely held traditional notion in Ghanaian society that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.

Women’s work and time burdens

In many homes women solely handle all of the unpaid domestic chores such as cooking, washing, fetching firewood, caring for children and the sick, sweeping and disposal of waste. These activities usually leave women no time to engage in training activities to enhance their opportunities to obtain quality employment. Consequently, as Nana Apt and Margaret Grieco have showed in their presentation “Managing the Time: Gender Participation in Education and the Benefits of Distance Education Information Technologies,” many women do not have time for gainful employment or higher education.

School environment barriers

Tanye explains in Perception of factors affecting female participation in Junior Secondary Education in Tano District of Brong-Ahafo Region, Ghana that many girls are unable to pursue academic studies because their schools lack the necessary infrastructure for quality academic work. Some of these schools in Ghana are dilapidated and lack water, electricity, clean toilets and equipment. In fact, according to the Alliance for African Women Initiative, many girls prefer to stay at home during menstruation because there are no girl-friendly facilities.

Teachers’ attitudes and practices

Traditional biases over time have influenced some teachers’ attitudes toward women in higher education. Tanye points to a research study conducted in some African countries including Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Guinea, and Rwanda that reveals that many teachers still erroneously believe that boys are better academically than girls. These negative perceptions have perpetuated biases toward women, like when teachers overly praise men’s responses in class and interrupt women when they comment. The author adds that the faculty also tend to downplay women’s achievements and use women students as examples in hypothetical situations, usually with sexual connotations.

All these negative attitudes and practices are similar to what many Ghanaian women face every day that discourage them from even considering pursuing higher education.

Conclusions and recommendations

The education of every individual is beneficial and especially significant for women and girls because of the socioeconomic benefits that a country is likely to achieve, and this assertion is affirmed by the Beijing Platform of Action. For a lower-middle-income country like Ghana to accelerate its level of development, it must ensure that women are equally represented at the faculty, staff and school level in higher educational institutions.

Education, especially at higher levels, provides opportunities for development and for women in particular; it has a ripple effect on their families because they play a vital role in the upbringing of children. Additionally, the education of women can reduce poverty levels and help to develop their confidence to know their rights and exercise them. Further, when women are empowered and are able to move into higher education and work as school administrators, professors, faculty and staff they can serve as role models for young people. Also they will be able to articulate the needs, interests and concerns of other women in higher education.

In order to reach parity in education, the government may consider affirmative action aimed at bridging the gap between women and men in higher education and adopt strategies that will provide a massive infrastructure revamp in the educational sector. Finally, to reduce negative social perceptions and misconceptions about women’s education, various stakeholders including nonprofits, government institutions, educational departments and agencies in Ghana should be resourced and empowered to promote women in higher education.

Women can reshape the socioeconomic development of Ghana when given equal opportunities as men. Their contribution to the development of the nation can be absolutely significant when they are able to pursue higher education. With 51% of the population of Ghana being women, the nation stands to benefit a lot from their participation in all sectors of the economy.

Ms. Sarah Kyei works as the Program Manager of the Alliance for African Women Initiative in Accra, Ghana. She earned a master’s degree in social science in public and community service from the University of East London, United Kingdom. Her past professional experience includes working with women’s organizations, and in the future she would like to deepen her work by empowering young women through the creation of a leadership development institute that leads to their professional and personal development. You can contact Kyei at

Kyei, Sarah. (2014, July). IN HER OWN WORDS: Women’s Underrepresentation in Higher Education in Ghana. Women in Higher Education, 23(7), 18-19.

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