Diversity and Democracy

Colleges and Universities of Their Own: Women’s Higher Education Institutions Worldwide

According to the World Bank (International Bank 2011) and a host of other global development agencies, educating girls and women benefits not only them, but also their communities, societies, and nations. In 2015, every woman in the world lives in a region where she can legally participate in some form of higher education, and she can do so with men—either in a fully coeducational setting or on a gender-segregated campus that enrolls women and men. Yet women’s colleges and universities worldwide continue to grow in number and enrollment. Although women’s colleges are decreasing in number and remain small in size in North America, Western Europe, and Australia, they are growing in size and number in the Middle East and Central, South, and Southeast Asia (Renn 2014). In East Asia, several women’s institutions are thriving with no sign of declining enrollments, and a handful of relatively new women’s universities operate across Africa (Renn 2014). In a world where women are legally permitted to attend universities with men, why are there so many women’s institutions? What do women’s colleges and universities bring to national and international contexts for higher education?

In 2008, I began a research project to answer those and other questions. I relied initially on colleagues from Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges for access to Women’s Education Worldwide (WEW, www.womenseducationworldwide.org), an international organization of women’s colleges and universities. I then conducted site visits at thirteen institutions in ten countries (Australia, Canada, China, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom). I explain my sites and research methods in detail in Women’s Colleges and Universities in a Global Context (Renn 2014). From interviews, focus groups, campus observations, and document analysis, I learned that women’s colleges and universities around the world serve five main purposes in the early twenty-first century. They provide (1) access to higher education, (2) supportive campus climates, (3) leadership development, and (4) gender empowerment; and (5) they function as symbols within national systems of higher education.


While women have legal access to mixed-gender education everywhere in the world, there remain a number of regions where religious and political extremists enforce their own values and prohibit coeducation or, in some cases, any education for women and girls. Terrorist attacks on individuals such as Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and on groups such as a busload of students from Pakistan’s Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in 2013 offer extreme examples of hostility toward girls and women seeking education. Even in less extreme contexts, cultural, religious, and political resistance creates a practical need for women’s educational institutions (Altbach 2004). In India, I met Muslim and Hindu students whose families would not have permitted them to attend college with men. Conservative Christian students in Kenya told me they could not have left their villages to study at a coeducational national university in Nairobi, but their parents consented to their attending a women’s university. And some women in the United Arab Emirates had family wealth that would have supported their attending one of the mixed-gender international universities in their city, but their families sent them to the state-run women’s institution. There are financial and academic arguments related to the role of women’s colleges in providing access to higher education, but cultural reasons form the core of this case.

Campus Climate

In every country I studied, students and faculty described how the campus climate supported women’s learning and development. Free from the constant gaze and criticism of men, students thrived across the curriculum, in fields traditional for women in their societies (e.g., education, nursing, arts and humanities) and nontraditional (e.g., business, science, engineering). Male and female faculty told stories of sexual harassment and discrimination they witnessed or experienced in mixed-gender graduate programs, and were proud to offer a welcoming educational environment for women. Students described stepping up and speaking out in courses, sports, and cocurricular contexts in ways that they felt they would not if men were also present. In Australia, where I studied a women’s residential college within a larger mixed-gender university, students described their college as buffering them from a social climate that was hostile to women in the wake of sexual assault allegations against members of the neighboring men’s college. Women’s institutions maintain campus climates that support student learning and development.

Leadership Development

Worldwide, women’s colleges and universities function as engines for student—and institutional—leadership development. Students know the names and stories of alumnae who made or are making a difference in the world, and they know that their alma mater expects the same of them. A few students I interviewed felt daunted by the responsibility, but most felt that their institutions were preparing them to take leadership in civic and professional life. Formal leadership programming, combined with the reality that, as one student said, “we can’t just wait around for a man to take charge,” creates an ideal context for developing women as leaders. A study of student leaders at WEW member institutions (Renn and Lytle 2010) indicated that in nations where coeducation is the norm, many students choose women’s colleges in part because they know that they will have these opportunities. In addition, in every nation I visited, the majority of faculty and institutional leaders in higher education (presidents, chancellors, rectors, principals) were men—but only one of the women’s institutions I studied had a male leader. Women’s colleges and universities provide key opportunities for female academics to strive toward senior leadership roles in higher education.

Gender Empowerment

Women’s colleges and universities play a role in gender empowerment on campus, locally, and nationally. They sensitize students to consider gender inequality and serve as hubs for political and social organizing and events (e.g., speakers, book launches). The Canadian women’s college in my study hosts its city’s women’s center. Students in India planned a Take Back the Night March for International Women’s Day. In South Korea, Japan, India, and China, women’s centers or programs within these institutions are intellectual hubs for academics working on gender issues nationally and internationally. Like the other roles women’s colleges play, gender empowerment occurs within local contexts; a faculty member in Japan spoke of the balance her institution was attempting to strike among empowering women, advancing STEM education, and honoring tradition.


While performing the other four roles described here, women’s colleges and universities also serve as symbols within their national systems of education and in society more broadly. Where coeducation is the overwhelming norm (Australia, Canada, China, Italy, Kenya, United Kingdom) they cause the observer to ask why, in the face of this norm, they continue to exist. The answers draw attention to what is often lacking in women’s experiences in coeducation: positive campus climate, optimal leadership development, gender empowerment. Where gender-segregated education is somewhat to substantially more common (India, Japan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates), women’s institutions symbolize access and opportunity. Wherever they are, women’s colleges and universities play a symbolic, countercultural role that points to the purposes of education and the need for gender equity in educational outcomes.

Looking Ahead

My study creates an international portrait of women’s colleges and universities in the early twenty-first century. In the last fifty years, substantial shifts have occurred in women’s rights and gender equity around the world, with consequent shifts in the landscape of women’s higher education. If these shifts continue, it is possible that in fifty years women’s institutions will play a much smaller role in providing access to higher education. But I predict that it will take much longer for coeducational institutions to offer equitable environments for women’s learning and development, and that the other roles that women’s colleges and universities play will remain vital.


Altbach, Philip G. 2004. “Preface.” In Women’s Universities and Colleges: An International Handbook, edited by Francesca B. Purcell, Robin Matross Helms, and Laura Rumbley, ix–x. Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. 2011. World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development. Washington, DC: The World Bank.

Renn, Kristen A. 2014. Women’s Colleges and Universities in a Global Context. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Renn, Kristen A., and Jesse H. Lytle. 2010. “Women Student Leaders Worldwide: Global Perspectives on Gender, Leadership, and Student Involvement.” Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice 47 (2): 215–32.

Kristen A. Renn is professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University.

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