Universities play a critical role in the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals through the third mission, i.e. public engagement activities. However, female academics miss opportunities to be part of this mission because they are caught in many roles that prevent them from getting involved in the SDGs. In light of SDG5, Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, we conducted interviews with twenty female academics from Iran and the Philippines to investigate their aspirations, opportunities and experiences with public engagement activities. Our findings show that, while recent gender policies have enabled female academics to develop robust careers, their contributions beyond the walls of the university remain limited because of longstanding patriarchal structures, distrust in women's professional expertise and unchanged systemic constraints. By bringing women's engagement activities forward and supporting them in the delivery of the SDGs, we reframe current debates on women's roles in academia. We argue that HE institutions may enhance their third mission and better achieve the targets of SDGs by valuing women's work and facilitating their engagement activities that may lead to significant societal impact. We conclude our paper with a series of recommendations for policy and practice that support women's journeys in academia.