There are more women at Sri Lanka’s universities – but they remain spaces dominated by men

Now is not the time for complacency. Universities should produce critical thinkers – and questioning gendered norms and expectations is a crucial part of this.

Kaushalya Perera
8 May 2017

University students at protest in Sri Lanka, 2014.

University students at protest in Sri Lanka, 2014. Photo: Flickr/Vikalpa/Groundviews. Some rights reserved.

In Sri Lanka, women are more educated than men. This has been a growing trend, most stark in higher education. In 2015, 60% of enrolment in state higher education institutions was female, and 68.5% of graduating students were female. Most disciplines currently produce a higher percentage of women graduates with notable exceptions in engineering (21.5% female) and computer science (41.8% female).

But does this rise in the number of women in higher education mean that universities are more equitable or equal for women and men?

The growth in the number of in female undergraduates has resulted in more women entering academia, but it is yet not possible to discern a proportionate rise in the number of women in key leadership positions. Instead, what we have is a situation similar to political representation in Sri Lanka where women’s representation is 5% in parliament and even less in other levels of government.

The higher one walks up the academic ladder, the less gender parity we see: in 2013, women comprised half of the probationary lecturers but not even a quarter of the senior professors.

At the University Grants Commission, which manages most state universities, all Commission Members are men; in the nearly 20 standing committees, only a handful of members are women. These Standing Committees include heads of relevant institutions, Deans and Vice Chancellors. It is therefore a potent illustration of the absence of women in key positions in our universities.

The higher one walks up the academic ladder, the less gender parity we see...

According to Savithri Gunasekera, former Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, the UGC once had a policy of assuring gender balance in university councils. Current statistics therefore represent a regressive trend.

The lack of women in leadership roles at the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations is also similar, though unsurprising considering the gendered nature of union work in general, where women are more often appointed as secretaries or treasurers and are rarely the public face of collective organising.

Is the under-representation of women in the higher echelons of university staff and administration due to unchanging gendered roles within the home?

Women may find it difficult to devote the time and energy needed to pursue careers in academia given responsibilities within the domestic sphere. Female academics with children are often unable to leave the country to obtain graduate degrees, thus contributing to a smaller pool of female candidates for higher positions. It may also be that both women and men continue to perceive women’s role in higher education as that of ‘teachers’ (or service providers) rather than leaders.

Growing conservatism

Parallel to the under-representation of women in university staff, committees and unions, there is an insidious growth of conservatism on Sri Lankan campuses most visible in a dress code imposed mainly, although not exclusively, on women.

Asoka de Zoysa, a Sri Lankan academic, points out that the sari has become synonymous with appropriate dress for women at educational institutions today. Some university officials have demanded that female academics wear the sari, either through explicit verbal directives or more indirectly. Not only is it a signifier of modesty (good Sri Lankan women wear sari) but also of professionalism.

Conformism in dress signals conformism at a deeper level in higher education...

In my own experience as a Sri Lankan academic, female academics come under pressure to wear the sari for lectures, examinations and meetings. Female students in many universities are also under pressure to dress modestly. Thus many students, with the exception of some (either due to department culture or social class), refrain from wearing sleeveless, shorter than knee-length clothes or clothes that are form-fitting.

Academics at a protest in Sri Lanka, 2011.

Academics at a protest in Sri Lanka, 2011. Photo: Flickr/Vikalpa/Groundviews. Some rights reserved.

While it is women’s attire that became the talking point in universities, growing formalism in male academic attire is noticeable as well. An informally-dressed male academic – in a loose shirt, t-shirt or jeans – is unusual at Sri Lankan universities today, and students in 'different’ attire, e.g. dhotis or three-quarter length pants, have faced harassment in some universities.

Conformism in dress signals conformism at a deeper level in higher education. How do we sustain spaces of critical thinking, and diverse approaches to teaching and research practices, when difference in the more overtly visible aspects of academic life is unacceptable? Without accepting and standing up for non-conformist men and women in academia, how do we build institutions of learning that are acceptable of differences of thought?


Ragging – the ritualised hazing of first year undergraduates which takes place in Sri Lankan universities – is also a site of gendered violence, with its severity differing according to university and faculty.

Such differences are erased in many media accounts of ragging, which also ignore its gendered aspect. There are also few studies on this, with an exception being Eshani Ruwanpura’s research on female sexuality which discusses ragging at the University of Kelaniya.

One of the primary reasons for ragging to continue is its ties to student political activity. And student unions, which control and plan ragging, are almost exclusively male.

Students that stand out as 'different' are targeted for the worst forms of ragging...

Ragging is more often by male students, reflecting the gendered characteristics of student politics and gendered norms that prohibit women from behaving in a ‘masculine way’. For instance, raggers are expected to use abusive language, including swear words in public spaces which is taboo for Sri Lankan women.

Meanwhile, all first-year students are coerced into dress codes: more formal office attire for men (shirts tucked-in, formal pants, closed shoes, no t-shirts or jeans), with female students expected to wear long sleeves, high necklines, long skirts and refrain from wearing jewellery, make-up, or jeans.

Students report that although the violence of ragging is directed at all first-year students, those who stand out as 'different' due to their gender identity or social class are targeted for the worst forms.

Part of ragging also takes place in university accommodation in the evening or at night, which means that students who are economically disadvantaged (who are unable to find outside accommodation and live in university dormitories) are ragged more often. Over the past two decades, the ragging period has also increased (from about two to almost five months), and even longer for some female undergraduates.

While both male and female students undergo sexual harassment and abuse as part of ragging, the severity may differ according to university. Even though there is a general acceptance that male students will not physically touch women students during ragging, exceptions to this have been reported. Sexual abuse complaints by students who are ragged are rare, with reports of sexual abuse faced by male students the least discussed. A newly set up portal to complain about ragging can help, but needs the full cooperation of the university population to be successful.

...universities in Sri Lanka continue to be spaces dominated by men.

Despite the disproportionately larger numbers of women joining higher education as students and staff, universities in Sri Lanka continue to be spaces dominated by men.

The presence of men in positions of authority would not be a concern if male academics were feminist in practice. This has not been the case in general. Universities are spaces that should lead progressive thinking in the country, while producing progressive and critical thinkers. Questioning gendered norms and expectations is a crucial aspect of this.

One way to address these issues is the time-honoured practice of putting in place mechanisms that will actively encourage gender equity: institutions that work on issues of gender, along with the establishment of protective mechanisms that take violations of rights – including sexual harassment and abuses during ragging – seriously.

Now more than ever, with a higher number of women in universities, it is not the time to be complacent. Also disturbing is the unquestioned inverse trend: what does the absence of male students in higher education mean for the country? What socio-political changes does this reality signal?

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