Long march towards gender equality in African university leadership

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Women cannot break the glass ceiling in the ivory towers of apprenticeship where the highest positions are still held in the vice by men in universities across South Africa – and on the African continent .

Professor Sibongile Muthwa, Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University

South Africa has only six women in the vice-chancellor’s hot seat.

They are Professor Thoko Mayekiso from the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Sibongile Muthwa from Nelson Mandela University, Professor Rushiella Songca from Walter Sisulu University, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from UCT, Professor Puleng LenkaBula from Unisa and Professor Xoliswa Mtose from the University of Zululand.

In Kenya, out of 29 public universities, only six are headed by women.

According to Chioma Blaise Chikere, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Science at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country – the statistics regarding female university leaders in her country are shocking and reflect a “ very disturbing truth ”.

UCT Vice-Chancellor Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng. Photo: Tracey Adams / African News Agency / ANA

“I found six vice-chancellors who currently hold this position, four of them in public universities and two in private universities.

“There is a dearth of female vice-chancellors in this part of the world, with almost 200 public and private universities.

“Unfortunately, the statistics are startling,” she said.

Things are not getting better all over Africa.

According to Professor Mabel Imbuga, president of the Forum of Women Vice-Chancellors in Africa, alarmingly, out of 1,500 universities on the continent, only 40 are headed by women.

But, she said, several mechanisms to strengthen women’s leadership in higher education requiring adequate resources were underway to address the anomalies.

Ahead of his big conference on the future of higher education this week, South African Universities (USAf) President Professor Sibongile Muthwa told the Sunday Independent that the tertiary sector’s gender performance was mediocre.

“In terms of making sure that we mark the gesture, in terms of the leadership of the university, at least in terms of gender, I would say that in terms of the racial makeup of the leadership, at least the leadership visible from universities, it is quite diverse.

“But in terms of gender transformation, there is a lot of work that universities need to do,” Muthwa said.

She revealed that the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Department of Science and Innovation, as well as the National Research Foundation, have worked collectively to provide grants and support to train the various levels. from entry-level university managers, university, mid-level, academics and management, and management, as well as the upper level to create a pool.

“But we need to pay attention to what has held back gender equality when it comes to leadership in the university sector. It is not acceptable, ”Muthwa said.

She said the tertiary sector needs to build a new level of leadership that reflects the diversity of the country, as society closely monitors events as people talk about an engaged university.

“These are people talking about the social justice project.

“These people are talking about zero tolerance for gender-based violence, and these people are talking about equalizing the status of men and women in the sector.

“But we still have six female vice-chancellors and 20 male vice-chancellors.

“All of us who currently run universities, from consultancy to organizations, such as the USAf, we need to do a lot of soul searching to make sure that over the next few years there will be more representation of women and people of color in the upper echelons of universities, ”Muthwa said.

UCT Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said that as a black woman at the head of a higher education institution, the demands were enormous.

“If you are a black woman, it is even worse because you are not only dealing with patriarchy, you are also dealing with racism,” she said.

She likened the role of a vice-chancellor to that of walking a tightrope between the council chamber and the picket line.

“Everyone is happy when we are appointed; everyone was thrilled because the picket line considers me one of them, and of course I am.

“But the boardroom also considers me one of them as an AB1 scientist.

“Whenever you make a decision, everyone wants you to deliver on their mandate and deliver what they want, even when those demands collide or are inconsistent.

“Anytime you make a decision, you make someone angry,” she said.

Phakeng said the scrutiny of the women in the role was intense.

“People look at what I wear, choose the size of my earrings, people criticize my hair, they wonder why I have an afro, is that a political statement?

“No man is criticized for the color of the suit he wears.

“When you agree on everything, of course, they will blame you for being weak while you are strong and for holding the line.

“When you speak with passion like I do, then you are a bully,” she said.

Javu Baloyi, spokesperson for the Commission on Gender Equality, said there are many reasons why the gender gap persists in higher education institutions.

“South Africa is a patriarchal society, and higher education institutions have been no exception to this phenomenon.

“Higher education institutions often have male-dominated councils, senates and student representative councils (SRCs), and unions could do little to influence the decision of these powerful bodies.

“The environment that these universities were and, to a certain extent, some of them are not conducive to women vice-chancellors to have free rein,” he said.

Baloyi said the constant attacks on female vice chancellors have their roots somewhat in the fact that women do not want to take up these positions.

“Not that women are not capable, but the extent to which they are expected to be successful trumps everything,” he said.

Former Mauritius President and renowned scientist Ameena Gurib Fakim ​​told the Sunday Independent that despite the cheerful rumor about women’s empowerment, appointing women to critical positions remains a problem, whether in universities, politics, business, etc.

“When we look at the root cause of the problem, we see only one word to describe it: misogyny.

“Women are not supposed to upset the status quo, and her appointment will be through many other lenses besides gender – class, ethnicity, tribe, political affinities, etc.”

Fakim ​​said these criteria often color the exercise because in academia academic excellence and management skills should be the only guiding factors.

“Often times women are appointed to fix the problem because if she succeeds men will reap the rewards, and if she does not succeed well it is easy to blame her,” she said. declared.

Higher Education Council Chairperson Prof Themba Mosia said promoting women in leadership, especially in higher education, remained a challenge for some time.

“I still think a lot can still be done to correct the situation.

“But the way we have organized ourselves has to undergo a fundamental change.”

Most explained how women appeared to have been marginalized during the lobbying processes of various campus groups that seemed to give male candidates a head start.

Therefore, he said changing the status quo requires a deliberate and bold approach, in which gender should be a vital part of the criteria.

UCT Council Chairman Babalwa Ngonyama said that the culture of an institution was first and foremost a factor explaining why institutions have been slow to counter the trend of appointing women.

Ngonyama told me that the culture of universities and institutions, in general, is designed around masculinity, so things like organizational preferences were created by men, based on their likes and dislikes, which excluded women.

“As a result, we have leadership that is not inclusive. We have values ​​in organizations that do not include women.

“Women often feel a sense of isolation, and sometimes in a room full of people, it will be full of men, and you would feel very isolated.”

Another reason universities have been slow to turn the tide, Ngonyama said was a long-standing challenge.

“We still have an age-old culture of boys clubs that keeps women out of top positions. ”

Decisions and commitments often occur outside of formal meetings in places like golf courses, for example.

There were always unconscious prejudices that women had to contend with.

“So what can we do to fix this problem.

“First and foremost, before you even solve the problem.

“We need a fair and just society.

“And we can only achieve this society if we include women in all decision making,” she said.

Brightness Mangolothi, director of Higher Education Resources-South Africa (HERS-SA), said that in South Africa, ivory tower doors remain dominated by (white) men in South Africa and that change could take place when there is a critical mass of women in senior management.

HERS-SA has contributed to the creation of a critical mass.

Beyond the programs aimed at advancing women leaders in 2020, we have launched coaching support and, in 2021, the mentoring program.

These interventions are creating a necessary change in South African higher education.

“Policies alone are not enough to transform universities, hence the need to re-examine a system of governance because, as it is, transformation will remain an ideal,” she said, articulating the ongoing challenge for women in higher education in South Africa. and on the continent.


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