The academy must bridge the gender divide

Why are there so few senior women in the academy?

The excuses are well worn, if not by now downright offensive: there are not enough women academics; women do not meet the standards for academic leadership; if only there were enough women with doctorates; and women do not make themselves available for leadership.  

Yet every public university in South Africa and abroad contains in one or more policy documents a commitment to gender equity and women’s empowerment in the academy. 

And still the data remains the same: women are over-represented in university lecturerships and lower levels of administration but under-represented in professorships, departmental headships and senior management positions. 

Why? The first and simple reason is that in the male-heavy leadership of universities, women are simply not a priority. 

It is the rare vice-chancellor who understands the representation of women in senior management as a matter of social justice. It is even more rare to find deans, heads of departments or directors of centres making a consistent, determined and unrelenting effort — for this is what it takes — to find, nurture, retain and advance women in middle and senior management leadership in higher education.  

It is a lesson I learnt early on as a academic leader: if you want to change something, you should single-mindedly drive it with all the energy and resources at your disposal. 

Likely to grow
From an historically all-male management to a minority women leadership in my senior management at the University of the Free State, the majority of vice-rectors are now women — and this number is likely to grow even further over the next five years.  

That is no accident. 

The numbers flow from a deep commitment in the team not only to change the equity numbers but also to pursue social justice in institutions that for more than a century upheld men as the natural leaders — and successors to leadership, in universities — much like priests, imans or rabbis to this day in the churches, mosques and synagogues.  

The institutionalised sexism in South African universities, therefore, remains the major barrier to women rising in academic leadership, as scholars such as Deevia Bhana, Venitha Pillay and others have repeatedly shown. 

It need not be expressed in ugly words; sexist cultures need simply to be sustained in daily practice. Those invisible beliefs and understandings of what women can and cannot do in academic management are what really hold us back.  

Selection or promotion meetings are reasonably decent, formal procedures are followed, and there is the profession of faith in the printed rules. 

But in reality, a complex of practices work together to exclude women in favour of men, even when the latter group is mediocre in terms of scholarly achievement or managerial standing. 

How else would you explain the large percentage of unproductive, average male leaders at all levels of South African universities? The second and related reason for the low numbers of women in academic leadership in higher education lies in the very organisation of society, which is, in turn, inflected in the functioning of the university. 

Some universities continue to have, to this day, “dean’s wives” clubs on the fairly reliable assumption that the deans are men. What this means in our conservative society is that women academics, by and large, still have to go home and make the food, or ensure the home is clean and pick up the children from after-school activities.  

Of course, this has changed for a percentage of the academic workforce as our cultures transform and male attitudes evolve, but the dominant pattern remains.  

The average male academic still has much more time for research and publication — and therefore for advancement and promotion — than a woman scholar. The third reason, which flows from the above, is that universities have not, in turn, adjusted their physical and social environments in ways that make it possible for women to accommodate the additional demands on their lives.  

I will never forget walking along the corridors of the University of Michigan in the United States to a meeting with a young academic psychologist when I was distracted by an unusual title on the door of a room — “The lactation room”. 

A comfortable place
It took a few minutes for the unfamiliar reality to sink in: this was a place that actually made it possible for academic mothers to come in and express milk in private, comfortable surroundings with all the necessary facilities available, including a refrigerator.  

It is a simple yet profound arrangement that still does not exist at most universities because they were always built by men for men. 

I returned to my home campus and immediately our women staff planned the details of what should go into our very own lactation room in the main building. 

There are so many other examples of how to design university spaces with women in mind. The fourth reason for the paucity of women academics in senior positions of research and leadership is that we do not have dedicated plans for building the base of next-generation leaders. 

“Growing your own timber”, that stock university response to inequality, might have helped some individuals but I am not convinced that we have yet designed a comprehensive and workable plan targeting enough women to enable the most talented to rise to the top.  

The model that dominates in academia, as in sport, is inadequate. Let me take rugby as a deliberate example of perhaps our most macho sport. 

You need (a) a base of tens of thousands of black rugby players (b) from very early in life (preferably before grade one) (c) tracked throughout their schooling and club careers with (d) optimal investments in ongoing coaching and mentoring to ever hope to (e) select enough talented Springboks of colour. 

South Africa does not follow this model
It is as simple and complex as that. But we do not follow this model. We somehow miraculously expect enough talented black Springboks to show up in the senior teams and, if they don’t, you have these tedious and circular debates on the question of the absence of enough black players. 

Prejudice surely plays a role, but so does short-sightedness. Those heroic programmes that do exist to identify and support talented women academics and administrators for senior leadership often fall short of one or more of the five elements of the model described. 

Dropping women into week-long workshops, and then returning them to universities with little evidence of a sustained mentorship programme for promising leadership candidates, simply does not work.  

Again, enterprising and demanding individuals will benefit by fighting their way through tough institutional cultures, but most will tire and withdraw from the race to the top.  

For example: we all know in higher education what a complex and demanding job that of a registrar is. 

This is the person who, in many ways, enables the basic functioning of the university — from oversight of the academic timetable and managing the plethora of rules, regulations and policies governing institutional administration to keeping an eye on changing governance frameworks as they affect institutions and ensuring the academic integrity of diplomas and degrees.  

A top registrar is hard to find, but I have yet to find an institution or a national project that is funded well enough to prepare potential registrars from the most talented senior students or staff seeking postings in academic administration.  

It is these individuals who become the target of headhunting by the 23 or more public universities. We all know their names — the leading woman professor in microbiology or the top black woman registrar or an outstanding woman internal auditor. We know them and compete for their attention. 

Those with less institutional loyalty or who spot an opportunity for a massive salary hike or full professorship — even when they do not qualify — take the offer.  A few change jobs often in this merry-go-round of senior appointments among a few universities. 

As I mature as a university leader, I am not sure this kind of headhunting in public higher education benefits anyone other than the individual concerned. 

Our university ecosystem is small and vulnerable, and we should be doing more to assist each other rather than to engage in this kind of mindless competition for the same people over and over again. In sum, we must expand the base of women academics and administrators from which to select the best. But we must still select them. 

And that is a matter of political will on the part of the dominant male leadership in South African universities. You either do it, or you find excuses. 

Professor Jonathan D Jansen is rector of the University of the Free State

Resources to empower women in universities

Jonathan Jansen’s opinion piece (above) points to a lack of urgency among decision-makers in higher education to address gender equity with greater zeal; and it also highlights the failure of higher education institutions to create a more enabling environment for gender empowerment.

In this context, the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA) academies play a critical role in challenging and transforming institutional cultures that stifle the advancement of women working in this sector.  

HERS-SA’s professional and leadership development programmes provide women with knowledge, leadership skills and access to invaluable networks.  

All these can be used by women for gender activism to challenge hostile institutional cultures and to smash through glass ceilings to fulfill career aspirations.  

Our programmes promote an agency in which women are provided with the resources needed to challenge hostile environments while also being able to recognise and seize opportunities for career advancement. 

Gender equity redress in higher education must continue to stay at the top of the transformation agenda. 

There are, however, signs that some women, including our alumni, are making career gains in higher education — as is evident on the Movers & Shakers page on the HERS-SA website (  

The 12th HERS-SA Academy takes place in Cape Town fromSeptember 7 to 12. 

Dr Sabie Surtee is the director of HERS-SA (Higher Education Resource Services South Africa)

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