Zully Vera, who takes office Thursday as the first female president in the 130-year history of the National University of Asuncion (UNA), says she plans to use her position to push for the appointment of more women to senior posts in Paraguayan institutions.

"I have a mission, and I hope we will be able to get more women into top job positions," the veteran professor and scientist said in an interview with EFE.

Vera acknowledged that her new role has caught the attention of the media and said she is confident that this "historic moment" will allow other women to attain similar positions within a few years.

However, she added that "these changes won't happen so quickly" in Paraguay and that incorporating women into positions of authority in the country will be a "gradual" process.

The gender gap can be seen within UNA's other institutions, including the University Assembly, which has 11 women among its 62 members, and the Superior Council, where women hold only five of the 52 seats.

In contrast, women make up 51 percent of UNA's 9,417 instructors, while 55 percent of the student body is female, along with 62 percent of graduates from the institution.

"I am encouraging the administrative bodies and the students to look toward that equality ... in the sense of having an even number of male and female representatives. This is something we have to build," she said.

The new UNA president said "we still have a lot of work to do" regarding equality, such as reducing the wage gap between male and female graduates, especially in the private sector.

After 27 years of working in universities, Vera was elected to her new post by the assembly with 43 votes in favor, handily defeating her three male rivals for the UNA presidency.

Her efforts over the next five years will be focused on improving the internationalization of the university, increasing the percentage of students on scholarships and pushing for more teacher training to improve educational quality.

Although she has yet to present her budget request to Congress, Vera hopes that promoting university education will become a "state policy," which consequently will require more public investment.

"Few students have access to higher education. A national and government challenge should be to increase the budget and help more students get access to universities," she said.

Her goal is to increase the percentage of young people who enter university since only 35 percent of Paraguayans graduate from secondary school.

UNA has 53,000 students, distributed among campuses in 12 of Paraguay's 17 provinces.

By Carlos Villar Ortega