Celebrating the success of women in higher education

AS the Higher Education Minister, my frequent engagements with youngsters have made me realise that the worldview of many Malaysians with regards to gender stereotypes have changed over the years.

It has become apparent that the line between a man’s role and a woman’s role at home, in school, at the workplace and in society is becoming increasingly blurred.

It is no longer surprising for a man to enjoy cooking or for a woman to enjoy discussing politics.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is in true millennial and Generation Z form of #ChooseToChallenge.

Indeed, it is clear that our young Malaysians are challenging age old beliefs on gender stereotypes. Women are progressively seen as independent, strong, brave – no longer meek or subservient.

In Malaysia, females constitute almost half of the country’s population. In fact, 48.6% of the 32.7 million Malaysians are female. The women of Malaysia play a Herculean role in bolstering the country’s development as well as in the socio-economic welfare of our families.

One of the greatest changes in Malaysia in recent years has been the increase of women in the labour market. In 2007, the women’s labour force participation rate (LFPR) was at 46.4% and in 2019, the LFPR was at 55.6%.

Malaysia fully supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The fourth and fifth SDGs aim to achieve quality education as well as to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

As proof to our commitment to these SDGs, we see more and more women taking centre stage in higher education.

In 2020, the number of females who enrolled in public universities was 357,087. This constituted 61% of the overall student enrolment.

They also made up the majority of enrolled students in private higher education institutions last year, constituting almost 53% of 537,434 students.

It is frequently said that women empowerment and equality will bring positive changes to the community as a whole. The results of a study on Gender Inequality conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) revealed that increasing female education contributed to a higher economic growth for about 50% in OECD countries over the past 50 years.

This is proof that to empower women is to empower a nation.

The success resulting from women empowerment and equality in the Malaysian higher education ecosystem is undeniable.

In our public universities, 56.5% of 31,584 academicians are women. These women academicians dominate the positions of language instructors (72.4% of 1,105) and lecturers (60% of 22,571).

At present, women academicians in the positions of associate professors and professors in public universities are still a minority. Reports from the Higher Education Ministry (MoHE) in 2020 show that there were 2,372 (48.4%) women associate professors and 650 (34%) women professors.

Nevertheless, the success shown by our women academicians in various fields of study assures that these numbers will increase in the near future.

In 2020, one of the many high achieving women who made a mark in academic history was Assoc Prof Dr Chan Yoke Fun, head of Department of Medical Microbiology at Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Faculty of Medicine.

Dr Chan’s research on the hand, foot and mouth disease resulted in a vaccine to combat the virus and brain infection disease in children. Her research won her the prestigious Asean-US Science Prize for Women 2020.

The award is organised by Asean through the Committee on Science, Technology, and Innovation (Costi), the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Underwriters Laboratories, to recognise promising, early to mid-career female scientists for their academic and professional achievements.

Aside from performing well in their core business, women academicians have also demonstrated their capabilities in university administrative positions.

In 2020, four women were elected to take on the role of deputy vice-chancellors in three public universities. They are Prof Dr Noorsaadah Abd Rahman (UM), Prof Dr Roziah Mohd Janor (Universiti Teknologi Mara), Prof Dr Suriani Abu Bakar and Prof D. Marzita Puteh (Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris).

Malaysia’s support towards women empowerment and equality is also evident at MoHE. More than half of MoHE’s workforce of 15,164 people are women (56%).

Additionally, the position of director-general of the Polytechnic and Community College Education Department is held by a woman, namely Zainab Ahmad.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the role that women play in Malaysia’s higher education sector contributes greatly to placing our country on the world map as an emerging international higher education hub.

Seeing clear evidence of success in Malaysia when women and girls are empowered, it is my wish that we will all work towards women empowerment and equality not only today, but every day.

It is imperative that we follow the footsteps of our younger generation who #ChooseToChallenge gender stereotypes.

I would also like to thank all of you for your efforts, no matter how small, that have contributed to the betterment of women in Malaysia and around the world.

For all the women you have supported, for the moments when you found the courage to speak up for equality – although remaining silent was a more comfortable option, please know that you have contributed to the greater good.

Happy International Women’s Day!

> The writer is the Higher Education Minister and Wanita Umno chief.

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