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Wossen Argaw Tegegn


Campbell Resident Scholar

Affiliation at time of award:
Research Scholar
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
University of Vienna

The Gender Agenda in Ethiopian Technology Universities

As a veteran lecturer and the founding head of the Gender Office at an Ethiopian university, Wossen Argaw Tegegn was puzzled that women students in technology classes consistently had lower achievement levels than men, despite the fact that the women were highly disciplined and motivated. Most of these classes were assessed largely on the students’ performance in practical work. “If women have attended 100 percent of the practical sessions, why are they achieving very low on skills that have to be practiced?” she asked. “That was what first alerted me. The women are punctual, interested, and present. Where is the flaw? This led me to look further into what was going on in the practical sessions themselves.”

When Tegegn observed some of the practical sessions, one reason for the “flaw” was quite obvious: the computer mouse was always in the hands of the male students. “The women didn’t get the right practice, the right exercise, during those sessions. The women students were most of the time engaged in clerical tasks. This is a subtle division of labor, where men do the actual technology, and the women in the same group do the writing and compiling. This was very striking: Who holds the mouse? Why? So I felt this needed to be explored,” she said.

Like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, Tegegn’s initial query grew into her dissertation thesis: Does the institutional culture in Ethiopian universities protect or change societal gender assumptions and stereotypes? How? Her research identifies crosscutting barriers that hinder the academic success of women candidates at technology institutes of higher learning, based on a critical sociocultural framework. Although one of the expected roles of Ethiopian universities and schools is to provide a modern education that encourages social and economic transformation, Tegegn is finding that the prevailing gender relations of society that disadvantage women are in many ways replicated in the educational experience. In turn, this trend can impede economic development.

Not all the evidence is as obvious as who holds the mouse, however. “There are other subtle forms of exclusion and ‘doing gender’ in day-to-day interaction, communication, and networking among faculty members. Most academic issues are discussed in social settings, such as the pub, where women do not have access. This is not such an explicit form of exclusion, but news about good resources, scholarships, opportunities, new positions, and research grants are ‘transmitted and actualized’ in these informal settings. If women are to benefit, such information should be shared—from beginning to end—through the formal institutional network,” Tegegn said.

Women students described another subtle barrier when they talked about their reluctance to go to the lab or the library at night, out of concern for their safety. “These kinds of things may seem very little, but they accumulate, and the cumulative effects will be really disadvantaging for women,” said Tegegn.

Tegegn is the second recipient of the Vera Campbell Fellowship, a six-month residency available for a female postdoctoral social scientist from a developing nation whose work addresses women’s economic and social empowerment in that nation. “Being the first female instructor of my home university and the founding head of the gender office, I have come to share the day-to-day challenges that women students and faculty face in our universities,” she said. Her research is based primarily on the institutional culture of the university where she has taught for 17 years, but it will include a survey of practices in five other regional universities in Ethiopia.

One pivotal chapter of her dissertation is a case study of how one university responded to the sexual assault of a woman student by two university workers, revealing the complex interplay of inadequate institutional policies, bureaucratic barriers, cultural taboos, and male domination. “My intention is to be a voice for women victims of gender-based violence,” she said. “I hope the findings of my research will help to build a shared vision of transforming Ethiopian higher learning institutes into inclusive education centers where both young women and men can contribute and benefit.”