Sex Segregation in Higher Education

Al-Saif (2013) and Wiseman (2008) say sex segregation in education refers to the isolation of people according to their sex. This term is synonymous to gender apartheid because some people see sex segregation as sexual discrimination (Herscovitch 2007). Sex segregation is not only a contentious issue in education because even outside educational circles, some pundits (Human Rights Watch 2008; Wiseman 2008) consider sex segregation as a violation of human rights. Nonetheless, Triventi (2010), Rugh (2002), and Roy (1992) have evaluated sex segregation based on its implication on education. As Teferra (2004), these researchers have not only focused on sex segregation in developed countries, but also in developing countries.

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Wiseman (2008) and World Bank (2012) have investigated sex segregation in developed countries and demonstrated that there is an emerging female advantage in higher education achievement among developed nations. Some reasons advanced for this progressive trend include the spread of egalitarian norms, the changing structure of the education system and the changing economic landscape (characterised with more female participation) (Poulson 2003).

Al-Hariri (1987), Renard (2008), and Roy (1992) have investigated sex segregation in higher education by proposing that sex segregation in higher education patterns on a scientific divide. The common public perceptions that there is a low female representation in scientific fields support this suggestion (Hamdan 2005). However, the main problem that arises from this analogy is the question regarding if sex segregation as a scientific phenomenon tells the entire story about sex segregation in higher learning (Schalkwyk 2000). From this dilemma, Subbarao (1995) answers by saying that sex segregation, as a scientific phenomenon, only accounts for less than one-half of sex segregation in higher education.

A closely related and well-established finding about sex segregation in higher learning stems from the premise that sex segregation is a global feature in higher learning (World Bank 2012). For example, Rugh (2002) perceives the comparison of sex segregation as a scientific issue to be a global phenomenon as well. Nonetheless, even studies that dispute the view that sex segregation is not a scientific issue show that there is a significant disparity between female achievements in different academic disciplines (World Bank 2012).

Broadly, sex segregation in higher education has attracted the attention of some researchers like Teferra (2004) and Baki (2004) not only because of its implication for education, but also on the labour market. For example, Baki (2004) says sex segregation informs about one-quarter of the income disparities between men and women in the labour market. However, Triventi (2010) and Martin (2010) say most developed countries have reported a significant growth in female participation in higher education. For example, in some Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the percentage of students who have gained access to higher education exceeds 50% (Triventi 2010). The expansion of students enrolled in higher education has specifically concerned women who have traditionally been at a disadvantage (compared to men) (Schlaffer 2011).

Zimmer (1975) reported that, in the seventies, female participation in institutions of higher learning varied across the world. For example, female participation in Japan and Netherlands bordered 28%, while female participation in Poland and Finland often reached 50% (Triventi 2010). In the eighties, some industrialised countries attained full gender balance in the access to higher education and in the nineties, some industrialised countries like Australia, United Kingdom, Italy, Ireland, and Greece (among others) attained the same threshold.

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Comparatively, researchers (World Bank 2012; UNESCO 2012) who have investigated sex segregation in developing countries say that there is a higher variability of sex segregation in developing countries than in developed countries. Indeed, Almutairi (2008) and Zaman (1988) say that in some developed countries, certain professions, like clerical and sales jobs, have a very strong female representation. Comparatively, managerial and production jobs have a strong male representation. In detail, Almutairi (2008) says that this pattern is true for about 70% of developed countries and about 50% for developing countries.

The widest sex disparities in higher education come from developing countries. In most of these countries, the status of women rarely matches that of men. However, as Almutairi (2008) and Al-Ajmi (2003) explain, this gender imbalance often varies across cultures. In this regard, Almutairi (2008) and AlMunajjed (2009) say that in highly gendered societies, sex segregation is more profound than in gender egalitarian societies. For example, in Afghanistan, the main issue bothering education stakeholders is not the main academic disciplines pursued by girls, but rather, the access of young girls to higher institutions of education (UNESCO 2012). Comparatively, in western countries, the declining number of men in some professions, like teaching, worries educational scholars. The “feminisation” of some professions therefore stands out as the main problem in most developed countries. Again, if we mirror the same concern to highly traditional and gendered societies, like sub-Saharan Africa, we see that the main educational concern is the lack of enough women in the teaching profession (UNESCO 2012). In such societies, the low number of women in such professions stem from the relegation of women’s roles to agricultural and domestic activities (House 2007). UNESCO (2012) has proposed that sponsoring female education in higher institutions of learning is a viable way of creating role models for younger girls and older parents to appreciate the importance of abolishing sex segregation in higher institutions of learning.

Therefore, in most developing countries, women are less likely to enrol in institutions of higher learning than men are (World Bank 2012, p. 1). Broadly, the statuses of women in such countries continue to be inferior to men (Lincove 2008). This situation replicates in most developing countries (albeit there are some slight variations in gender segregation among countries) (International Business Report 2012). For example, the MENA region has experienced sex segregation in education and work because of religion, unstable market conditions, and prevailing perceptions regarding traditional gender roles (Abdulrahman 2011). This may not be true for other regions.

Ludgate (2012) says countries can benefit from the gender redistribution of the workforce because there is a lot of potential in the involvement of more women in the workplace. Achoui (2009) singles out the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states as possible countries that may immensely benefit from the gender redistribution of the workforce because they still lag behind in the involvement of women across various job groups. Statistically, Ludgate (2012) explains that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could see an increase of its Gross Domestic product (GDP) by about 12%, while the Egyptian economy could witness an increase of about 35% in the same manner. Ludgate (2012) derives these statistics from the strong correlation that exists between increased female participation in the workplace environment and increased per capita income. From the positive correlation between female participation and improved economic prospects, Metcalfe (2008) and Prokop (2003) say it is implausible for countries to practice sex segregation in educational institutions and in the workplace.

The influence of culture and traditional gender roles in the society provide a special understanding of Sex segregation in developing countries. For example, the traditional preference of a boy’s education over a girl’s education explains the reason many women in some developing countries do not access higher education. However, in some developing countries like MENA states (as described above), religion plays a pivotal role in the understanding of sex segregation in higher education. For example, Alkahtani (2012) and Idris (2007) identify the influence of religion on sex segregation in MENA. Even though Islam does not forbid male and female interaction in education, some countries in the MENA region practice sex segregation in higher learning institutions (Ludgate 2012). The main reason for the practice of sex segregation in Muslim countries is the conventional belief that Islam forbids the free mixing of men and women (Trial 1950).

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Comprehensively, most studies of sex segregation in education focus on developed countries, as opposed to developing countries. Therefore, people know only a little information regarding sex segregation in developing nations. This paper seeks to address this literature gap by focusing on sex segregation in Saudi Arabia’s higher education system. Saudi Arabia especially comes into sharp focus here, not only because it is a developing country, but also because its education system thrives on strong Islamic principles. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a special country for this study because unlike other Muslim countries, it does not have a coed schooling system at all levels of education (Renard 2008). Another significant reason for the focus on Saudi Arabia’s education system is why the country has found it difficult to translate the significant growth of female participation in higher education to gender equality in the workplace (Al-Hariri 1987).


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