Mind the Gap: The place of women in higher education

The traditional ‘place’ of woman in higher education was in the role of teacher or secretary. With greater access to higher education over the past few decades, there has been a “rise of the senior woman”. The rise though has not created a strong enough impact as there still remains a significant and visible gender inequality gap at higher education institutions. This is largely because of a continuation of traditional norms, such as the conviction that management must be male-dominated.

In 2007, it was found that three of the 23 vice-chancellors (13%) and five of the 23 registrars (21%) in South Africa were women. Women also comprised 21% of the deputy vice-chancellors, while another 21% were executive directors. Although women constitute over 50% of the higher education workforce in South Africa they are still under-represented in senior positions (HERS-SA, 2007).   

In other countries, such as India, 44% of 12-million higher education students are women – yet only 3% of vice-chancellors are women. By comparison, 14% of UK vice-chancellors are women and in Sweden, 43% of heads of universities are women. In all six South Asian countries the share of women in positions of authority and responsibility in higher education is “shockingly low”.

New research by the Economist Intelligence Unit, commissioned by the British Council, has found that while there has been a dramatic rise in the number of female students enrolled in South Asia’s universities, this has not been matched by an increase in women occupying senior leadership roles in the sector.

Research conducted internationally indicates that women and men in higher education experience academia differently.

The experience of senior women in higher education is often a journey of construction and a negotiation of identities. The researchers note the diverse pathways to senior management taken by women executives and their atypical career patterns when compared with men.

Significant issues include discrimination and unequal power relations, which act against women’s opportunities for promotion. Factors like these contribute to women’s reluctance to apply for senior positions. 

It can be concluded that overcoming this reluctance is a significant problem for universities in shifting the demographics of male-dominated management roles. Without understanding the phenomenon from a women’s perspective, particularly in a senior position, executive management teams might not know how to ensure growth and development so that more women can apply for senior positions in higher education.

Numerous challenges
Challenges facing women in higher education include social and institutional expectations that they cannot lead; family responsibilities; breaks taken for child-raising that coincide with crucial career development periods; and having less freedom to travel than men.

While appointments of women like Professor Irene Moutlana as vice-chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology, and Professor Nthabiseng Ogude as vice-chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology, could serve as an encouragement to younger women with aspirations in academia, any tactical approaches at the upper echelons have not cascaded down, with the bulk of management positions still held by men. 


To ensure the growth and development of woman in higher education, a more strategic approach is needed. This would need systematic institutional innovation that includes a focus on the development of women’s work identities. Factors that influence professional career development include personal characteristics, socio-economic factors, physical and mental abilities and circumstantial variables.

By focusing on appropriate professional career development, universities can move beyond a dependence on “lightning-strike” appointments at the vice-chancellor or deputy vice-chancellor level. This process of systematic innovation and exploration in professional career development at an institutional, faculty and departmental level will create a more constant and dependable flow of women entering senior management positions, and will ensure the emergence of an enabling culture.

Higher education institutions need to communicate that their organisations are committed to supporting the appointment of women at a senior management level by beginning with building a culture that genuinely supports managed and repeatable processes in professional career development at an institutional, faculty and departmental level. 

The creation of a culture that is supportive of continuous professional career development will empower more women to enter senior positions in higher education. An enabling culture helps by defining the problems or opportunities for women at a particular institution.  

Meaningful connections
By understanding career development from a women’s perspective, executive management teams at universities might receive relevant answers to questions like: where is growth and development most needed? What are the key problems that need to be solved? What new opportunities are emerging?

To overcome challenges, women also need to make meaningful connections with other women in the sector. Divergent expectations and assumptions about women leaders, from both male and female colleagues, can create an almost untenable atmosphere for women in senior positions.  

It is up to universities to create an enabling culture for women that goes beyond cultures embedded in structures, gender and social class. Certain myths concerning women in leadership should be dismantled. 

The experiences of senior women in higher education cannot be ignored as they bring a unique contribution which can maximise a university’s potential and its strategic positioning. The input from women in senior positions can help develop an understanding of how strategic growth and development for women can be cultivated in higher education.

Dr Pauline Machika is the executive director of the Centre for Academic Development at the Vaal University of Technology.

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