Sisters in the academic struggle

That there continue to be many disparities between men and women at universities is clear from many national publications, including the Council on Higher Education’s 2007 report on the status of women in academia.

More recent statistics are not available, but the report states that although there are more women than men enrolled in postgraduate programmes, less than half (42%) of those who completed their doctoral studies are women. Furthermore, in all fields except education, there are more men than women enrolled for doctoral degrees.

Men do most of the research in South Africa. The report concludes from studies it undertook from 2005 that the women’s share of all papers was between 14% and 37%, even in the so-called traditional universities (as distinct from universities of technology).

Furthermore, only a third of National Research Foundation-rated researchers are women.

Women in senior management
In terms of women in senior management positions, the picture is also not very encouraging. Women comprise 43% of permanently employed academic staff at public universities, but only 24% are at the associate professor or professor level, according to the report.

Even at the senior lecturer level, only 40% are women.

Such statistics point to the fact that, despite progressive legislation on employment equity and other initiatives aimed at the advancement of women in academia, many factors make it extremely difficult for women to achieve success in what has traditionally been, and remains, a male-dominated field.

The relative invisibility of women in research and senior academic positions in higher education is not attributable to a single factor.

However, a major reason is that, worldwide, women experience conflict between their domestic and professional roles. Academia is a “front-loaded” profession—that is, it requires a large investment in time and energy during an individual’s early stages of development. Women are late starters and late achievers in academia because their careers are often interrupted to establish and care for their families.

Although job autonomy and flexibility may facilitate women’s ability to fulfil care-giving responsibilities, institutions do not generally make such provisions. As a result, women have to juggle and balance the dual demands of family and work. To maintain excellence in scholarship, teaching and research causes stress and anxiety. The education and careers of some married women are fragmented because of their husbands’ career movements and the women lose out because of not being permanent and miss opportunities for promotion.

Postgraduate female students and academics at the University of Limpopo, where we work, are no strangers to such predicaments. Like other women in higher education elsewhere, women at our university also struggle to find the time to achieve a measure of success in their research and professional activities.

Until 2007, most of these struggles were lonely battles, waged against a gender-weighted institutional culture that made it extremely difficult for women to be taken seriously as academics or scholars.

But in July that year, a small band of women at the Turfloop campus set up an informal organisation modelled on an initiative at Rhodes University, which they had learned about from the National Research Foundation.

What the Limpopo University’s women are doing about this
Called the University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association, the group established a core set of principles to support the development of female academics and researchers. Its aims are to:

  • Identify the reasons for the underrepresentation of women in research at our university;

  • Creatively and constructively explore ways of dealing with the personal, administrative, financial and institutional factors inhibiting female researchers;

  • Encourage young female academics, especially postgraduate students, to consider a career in research;

  • Encourage more women to supervise research;

  • Facilitate the participation of women at professional and academic conferences;

  • Provide support for publication in national and international journals;

  • Raise the research profile of the institution; and

  • Liaise and network with female researchers at other institutions, such as those of the Rhodes University Women’s Academic Solidarity Association.

A key principle of the Limpopo women’s association is to promote collegiality and co-operation among its members. The association’s activities are planned and discussed by its members.

It has organised workshops to develop time management, assertiveness and academic writing, for example. An important initiative that has emerged is a writing retreat to give women a few days away from the university to focus on our academic writing. Mentorship is a strong feature of these retreats: more established and senior academics read the work of emerging researchers and provide feedback and encouragement.

All members of the association who attend these retreats speak highly of the value of having time away from routine university work and family responsibilities to focus exclusively on their research proposals, thesis chapters or academic papers.

The association also believes in a strong culture of democracy and rotating leadership. All members, irrespective of rank or age, can be nominated to the executive committee, which consists of a chairperson, deputy chairperson, secretary and treasurer.

Among our successes is the growth of our membership from 27 in 2007 to 67, and last year we established a branch of the association on the university’s Medunsa campus. The association’s members have also published 28 papers, 12 honours students have graduated, five women have completed their master’s degrees, three have obtained their PhDs and four have had their funding proposals accepted.

In 2010 one of our women was chosen as the National Research Foundation’s most promising young black researcher and another was among the 100 most influential women the Mail & Guardian selected for its 2011 Book of South African Women. Two members of the association have been appointed the directors of schools and one has joined the university’s research office as a research developer.

Annual membership fees provide most of the association’s budget, but it has also received financial support from the office of the vice-chancellor, Professor Mahlo Mokgalong.

The University of Limpopo Wom­en’s Academic Solidarity Association will be launched officially at the Turfloop campus on Friday.

Professor Esther Ramani was the founding chairperson of the ­University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association, which Dr Nancy Malema now chairs.
For more information, email: nancy.malema@ul.ac.za

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