“Here I get support, advice and inspiration — You find sisters here.”
These were the words of Thembi Ncube at a University of Limpopo event two weeks ago that celebrated women’s support for each other through the male-dominated quandaries of academia.
“I’m a parent, a wife, an academic and I have also worked part time.
It’s not easy to perform all those roles and there are different expectations for women,” Ncube told the Mail & Guardian. “You might have a child crying all night long and you are expected to care for it, even though you have a deadline the next morning.”
Ncube is a mother of three who is in the process of submitting her PhD on the production of biofuels through the use of grass to the University of Limpopo. The event the M&G attended was the launch of the Polokwane branch of the University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association on April 20.
A woman’s challenges
“This group understands a woman’s challenges,” Ncube said. Her words echoed what many women have experienced: the conflict between their domestic and professional roles.
It is a difficulty that many universities do not acknowledge or make provision for — and it is one of the reasons why women remain underrepresented in higher education. Numerous national publications have shown that inequalities still exist between men and women at universities and that, despite progressive legislation on employment equity, academia remains a male-dominated world.
Less than half of the postgraduate students who completed their doctoral studies were women, the Council on Higher Education’s 2007 report on the status of women in academia said. Men also did most of the research in South Africa. According to the council’s studies between 2005 and 2007, women’s share of all papers was between 14% and 37%. Furthermore, only a third of National Research Foundation-rated researchers were women.
But when Esther Ramani, a professor in the school of languages and communication studies, founded the University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association in 2007, what had once been a solitary journey for many female academics at Limpopo University became a shared experience (“Sisters in the academic struggle”, M&G, April 13).
Ramani recognised the urgent need for specialised support for female academics. Since 2007, the group has grown from 27 to 110 members.
They have published 30 papers, seven honours students have graduated, five women have completed their master’s degrees, four have obtained their PhDs and four have had their funding proposals accepted.
On the sunny morning of the association’s Polokwane launch at the university’s Turfloop campus, chairperson Nancy Malema addressed 150 guests.
She told them many institutions did not acknowledge the conflict that female academics experienced between domestic and academic roles — and that “the masculine culture still exists in many [of these institutions]”.
Competitiveness and individualism were strong features of academia, but in the association “we call each other sisters because we believe in supporting each other”, she said.
The association’s aims include exploring ways of dealing with the personal, administrative, financial and institutional factors inhibiting female researchers at the university, encouraging young female academics to consider a career in research and for more women to supervise research, providing support for publication in national and international journals and networking with women researchers at other institutions.
It has also organised workshops to develop time management, assertiveness and academic writing skills as well as writing retreats where members are given a few days away from university and family responsibilities to focus exclusively on academic writing.
Members spoke highly of these retreats. “You all sit in a room and do your thing with your laptop and papers. You can get through more work during these retreats than you might do in a whole semester,” said Ncube.
The celebration also served as an official launch of the association and the university’s vice-chancellor, Mahlo Mokgalong, presided over it.
“It is an honour and a pleasure [to say] the University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association, for female academics by female academics, is officially launched,” he announced to ululation and dancing by attendants against the loud backdrop of gospel music.
In the sea of orange-branded T-shirts that members of the association wear, the celebratory mood intensified as the proceedings continued.
Guests shouted out their approval during the speeches and rose from their chairs to dance alongside their fellow academics between the official addresses.
Pride and solidarity were tangible in the air.
Ramani reminded guests that without Mokgalong’s “generous and unstinting support, we would not have progressed as far as we have”.
His office has funded all the writing retreats since 2009.
“Take your dreams for reality,” Ramani said. “If you have a powerful dream you can work towards making it real and it can destroy reality.”
And women must support each other, she said. “The unity that comes from surrender lasts but a day, but the unity that comes from struggle endures.”
She said the University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association represented unity, love, work, affinity for each other and, especially, strength and aspirations.