Gender Equity Issues Around the Globe – Three Experts Share with ACUI

An ACUI co-sponsored program on gender equity took on an international scope as subject experts from the U.S., Ireland, and South Africa participated in the recent Gender Issues Around the Globe webinar. The discussion was presented as part of the Around the Globe series created through a collaboration between ACUI, the American College Personnel Association, and the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools. 

This international look at gender equity on campuses, the challenges campuses face with regard to gender, and how different campuses are addressing those challenges was led by an assistant professor of nursing from Texas A&M who specializes in intimate partner violence, an equality and diversity administrator from Maynooth University, Ireland, recognized for work on inclusivity in higher education, and the head of the equality unit at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, where a discrimination mediation program has received accolades. Following is a vignette on each of the presenters, their backgrounds, and the work they are involved in.  

Jaco Greeff Brink, Stellenbosch University Equality Unit 

As head of the Stellenbosch University Equality Unit, Jaco Greeff Brink and his team oversee initiatives related to unfair discrimination, HIV/Aids, sexualities, gender non-violence initiatives at the university. Specifically, his research interests have been in sexual health, sexuality and gender-based violence in the South African context. The unit, as part of the Centre for Student Counseling and Development, serves the entire university and acts as a one-stop-shop for social justice.

Offices are located in the Simon Nkoli House, a building recently named for the South African gay rights and anti-apartheid activist who helped organize the country’s first Gay Pride march in 1990. Nkoli was charged with treason and faced the death penalty in 1984 as part of a group of rent boycott activists. He came out as gay in prison, was released in 1988, and then worked to change national attitudes about LGBTQ rights. 

One program offered at the Simon Nkoli House that has seen recognition is related to managing conflict at the workplace and a focus on mediation as a means of resolution in matters about unfair discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and victimization. Since the Equality Unit was founded in 2016, 90% of mediation sessions initiated by the unit were successful where both parties were able to reach an agreement or an amicable solution, the university found. Brink did note that while there has been an increase in female students, and as the majority of university staff are female, senior management is made up mostly of men. 

In 2019 and 2020 an anti-gender-based violence student movement, as nationwide protests occurred, led to a memorandum being presented to Stellenbosch University administrators that then led to the establishment of various joint working groups. Brink said there has been constructive dialogue between management and the anti-gender-based violence movement at the university and joint working groups now address: 

  • Values and principles 
  • Safety and security 
  • Training and awareness 
  • Residences and structures 
  • Procedures and processes 
  • Mental health, alcohol and substance abuse 

He said that, nationwide, the last four years have seen both upheaval and strides taken forward with respect to gender equity. Testimony on the topic was taken during the South African Commission for Gender Equality in 2017 and 2019, a new reference lists of alleged perpetrators was created, recommendations on addressing #EndRapeCulture at Stellenbosch University were formalized, the brutal death of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana occurred, and a Presidential Summit against Gender Based Violence and Femicide was held. 

Recommendations from the South African Commission for Gender Equality included: 

  • Gender diversity and equality to form part of student and staff orientation 
  • Address the gender pay gap 
  • Budget for gender transformation program 
  • Gender-focused recruitment, mentoring, and retention of staff 
  • Sufficient gender representation in decision-making bodies 

At Stellenbosch University, the Department of Higher Education and Training developed a campus-wide policy framework to address gender-based violence in the post-school education and training system, along with a code for management practices for employment equity that now serves as a critical tool for addressing barriers identified in the institutional Employment Equity Plan. Involvement in that transformative mandate, Brink said, now constitutes 20-25% of staff’s key performance areas 

You can learn more about the work being done at Stellenboch University’s Equality Unit in this video featuring Brink

Gemma Irvine, Vice President of Equality & Diversity, Maynooth University 

Irvine, who has responsibility for leading strategic change in the areas of equity, diversity, and inclusion across the university community, including students and staff, explained that the approach to equity, diversity, and inclusion for Ireland and its seven universities started with a focus on gender equality. In 2015 the Gender Strategy & Action Plan, a national review on gender equality in Irish higher education institutions, was undertaken.  

As assistant director of the Irish Research Council, Irvine launched that inaugural action plan, which at the time was a first for a research funding agency in Ireland. Two years later a Gender Equality Taskforce was asked to address issues uncovered in the national review. That led to a focus on a sexual harassment and the creation of a Framework for Consent in higher education institutions in 2019. A National Intersectionality Working Group was then established, and that led to the development of a National Access Plan and an Irish Public Sector Duty.  

What the review and task force found was that systematic barriers existed in higher education institutions and its culture, which in turn meant that, according to Irvine, talent alone was not always a sole indicator for success. She said the reason women are not found in the most senior positions in the same proportion as men is because women face barriers toward advancement that are not experienced to the same degree by their male colleagues.  

For example, Irvine said, if judging excellence is based on bibliometrics, are they being accepted as gender-neutral? Researchers found they were note and that in order to be judged equally as capable as a man, the woman had to produce 2.5 times as many research publications. Women were being held at a different standard than men, she said, since bibliometrics favors the sciences, a field where women are under-represented. Since the number of papers published is a time-bound metric, the disadvantage goes to anyone who has taken time out from an academic career or had less time in the field. As first authors, women receive fewer citations than men, women tend to publish more multi-author papers, yet men get greater credit for multi-author publications than women. The same applies for grant allocation money.  

There has been this myth that we needed to fix the women, Irvine noted. They were not succeeding due to their own behaviors or choices, was the thought, but research shows that what needs to be fixed is the environment. Women are as ambitious as men but are significantly less confident that they would succeed due to the current environment to judge them fairly. If transparency and leading by example are important, she said, then senior administrators should be required to demonstrate leadership in gender equality. Every higher education institution should also be required to have an institutional gender action plan that includes an annual assessment and progress report. Accountability would come through core grant funding, or the risk of losing funding. Irvine said the three largest research funding agencies in Ireland have already embraced those recommendations, and the Athena SWAN institutional certification is now used as the reviewer of those action plans and progress reports. 

Athena SWAN has recognized Maynooth University for its efforts creating and developing the first publicly accessible gender equality dashboard which allows users to compare the composition of staff and students across Ireland’s higher education institutions. Based on data supplied by the country’s Higher Education Authority, the interactive system allows users to monitor the progress of higher education institutions as they address gender equality.  

Through this work Irvine pointed to a number of lessons learned through the examination and review processes: 

  • A common terminology was needed and developed 
  • Data and analysis that includes variables like career progression pipeline by gender, and governance and management structures; stakeholder consultations; public online surveys; and current practices vs best practices 
  • Monitoring and modelling rate of change 
  • Development of a national action plan with time-bound targets and goals 

Dr. Nora Montalvo-Liendo, Texas A&M University—McAllen  

Montalvo-Liendo, an assistant professor at the College of Nursing at Texas A&M University—McAllen, is a bilingual, bicultural nurse in the Rio Grande Valley, where her research has focused on improving the well-being of women and children living with violence. Her involvement in the community is pivotal to her interests in gender violence, empowering women, and promoting gender equity, particularly among minority populations.

She works in the southernmost part of Texas, bordering Mexico, and her research has included studies that looked at Hispanic mens’ perspectives on violence against women and also on the benefits of long term support systems for women who survived intimate partner violence. She said that in 2018 alone, 174 women were killed by a male intimate partner in Texas. 

After working with a women’s shelter for a study she did in 2008, Montalvo-Liendo, invited women who had survived intimate partner violence to come together and talk. After more than 10 years she began asking what happened with the women after they left the shelter. “I asked the director and she said they do have support groups, but they’re only 10 to 12 weeks long and are limited in size since they are structured therapeutic groups,” she recalled. 

Interested in learning if the long-term support group was having an actual impact on the women, Montalvo-Liendo and members of her team conducted interviews, analyzed transcripts from the interviews, and then identified three ideas, or themes, the women repeatedly brought up: awakening, community and empowerment. In the awakening category, the women said things such as, “Now my eyes are open” and “I thought it was my fault.” In these instances, the women revealed that after talking with their peers in the group, they were able to realize that abuse is not okay and they do not have to suffer through an abusive relationship. 

Women who felt a sense of community said, “I became we,” “I am not alone,” and “We share everything.” One woman said, “My problems are small compared to others.” Another idea that came up frequently the research team termed empowerment. Comments included: “I came out feeling stronger.”  

In order to eradicate gender issues, we must recognize violence impacts families, communities, and college campuses, she said. We must socialize all children that they are equal, and socialize girls to seize the moment. Gender issues are not one sided; they are everyone’s responsibility. 

Since a history of adverse childhood events may put students at risk for unhealthy relationships during their college years, Montalvo-Liendo advocated for creating a network of ambassadors, supporting and creating opportunities for community engagement, and conducting and promoting monthly awareness and prevention projects. With these types of ongoing and consistent interventions, change is possible, she said. 

Montalvo-Liendo also covered definitions of gender, equity, and equality for a common language on the topic, and described the Title IX Education Amendment. There have been recent changes to Title IX that directly impact students, including how the scope of applicability has been limited to only incidents that occur on campus where the school has significant control over the place or event. Previously, the rules were not limited by geography. The process of hearings has also changed, including live hearings with cross-examinations.  

She also shared some statistics related to gender-based violence: One in five college students experience intimate partner violence; one in six women experience sexual assault in the U.S. In 2016 a study showed a substantial proportion of students experience sexual assault, but the study notes much research in the area focuses on white, cis-gender females. Montalvo-Liendo said that in order to gain a clearer view into sexual assault on college campuses, the lens needs to be widened to look at other populations so as to ensure a common language is maintained around these issues.  

Finally, she said an equity mindset is where everyone has a chance. This means equitable opportunities for women and currently women are inequitably represented in the faculties and within the leadership of higher education institutions. 

To learn more about this program and associated topics, check out the On Demand version in the ACUI On Demand Library. Included in that version are program slides and other materials. This program includes details from the presentations not in this article, including a question and answer portion. You can also continue the conversation in the International Student Unions Community of Practice discussion forum.  

The Around the Globe series is a collaborative effort between ACUI, the American College Personnel Association, and the Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools. This series of webinars provides the opportunity for members in different countries to share how common issues and practices in student affairs are experienced in different parts of the world.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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