Wits outshines Oxford in UN study on gender parity

The University of the Witwatersrand has more female professors than Oxford University in the United Kingdom. This is one of the startling facts to emerge from statistics furnished by Wits, Oxford and eight other universities to UN Women — the United Nations entity that deals with gender equality.

A report titled HeForShe IMPACT Universities was released by UN Women on Tuesday (September 20).

It said the 10 universities that participated in the pilot project have made “ambitious, transformative and time-bound commitments” to achieve gender equality “in this lifetime”. And “over the next three to five years they will serve as innovation incubators and role models for their communities”. The universities have pledged to end gender-based violence and achieve gender parity in employment.

The 10 institutions divulged statistics on female undergraduates and graduates as well as the representation of women in the different faculties and those in the professoriate and executive management.

“It represents one of the first synchronised efforts at transparency around gender equality. It is a principled, intentional step that aims to clear the path for others to follow,” the report stated.

The 10 universities are: Wits, Georgetown and Stony Brook in the United States, Leicester and Oxford in the UK, Waterloo in Canada, Hong Kong in China, Nagoya in Japan, Sao Paulo in Brazil and Sciences Po in France.

According to the statistics, in 2015, 28% of professors at Wits were women compared with 23% at Oxford. However, Oxford had a higher number of women in executive management (38%) compared with Wits (27%).

Universities with the lowest number of female professors included Nagoya (13.7%), Sciences Po (14%), Hong Kong (18%) and Waterloo (18.4%). Of the 10, the highest number of female professors were employed at Georgetown University in Washington (36%).

Wits said it planned to increase the number of women who were heads of schools from 22% to 32% and professors from 28% to 30% in the next three years.

It was also planning to ensure gender parity in its executive management team by 2019.


Wits’ vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, said that if one looked at the representation of women across the academic hierarchy, “then we are seriously deficient”.

“That’s clearly something that we’ve got to address.”

Habib said one of the biggest challenges at universities across the world was gender-based violence: “Rape is one of the most onerous of these challenges.”

He quoted the four cases of sexual harassment by male lecturers that were reported at Wits in 2013 when he assumed the post of vice-chancellor.

“We took strong action and reorganised our entire infrastructure around this.”

Wits established an independent, stand-alone gender equity office that has developed a comprehensive system to report, predict, prevent and address gender-based violence on campus.

“We encouraged reporting of gender-based harm complaints. We overhauled our investigative capacity and our disciplinary processes so that complainants or victims and perpetrators would not face each other in the same room.”

Habib said they also introduced “ambush lectures”, which involved a gender and advocacy specialist suddenly entering a room where a lecture was in progress and taking over the lesson to talk about gender-based harm.

“Our stand-alone office is unique. There are few institutions I know of that have a stand-alone gender equity office.”

Commenting on gender parity in his executive management team, Habib said contracts existed and, “as and when opportunities arise, we will seriously look at trying to advance gender parity”.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, undersecretary general and executive director of UN Women, said other universities would be invited to join the programme in South Africa. The expansion would be led by the UN Women’s office in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. under Anne Githuku-Shongwe, the country representative, together with student organisations, university councils, government and civil society organisations.

“The 10 universities currently in the IMPACT initiative are in this group not because they are perfect role models but because they have problems, and they will be working on them, along with us, to improve that situation.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka said that, to succeed, this work has to be done by all universities, with broader university commitments everywhere in the world.

“We deeply appreciate Wits stepping forward to take on the responsibilities of being in the pilot — they face similar challenges to those experienced by other campuses in South Africa.”

The 10 universities in the pilot project were the “guinea pigs”, according to Mlambo-Ngcuka, adding: “They must raise the bar and put pressure on other universities to make a commitment. We are pushing the frontiers.”

Quite a few universities across the world had problems about revealing their data and “telling the world what their weaknesses were and, on top of that, making a commitment on what they were going to do to solve it”.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said they were looking at universities to do something extraordinary by, for example, creating centres of excellence that were able to look at issues involving gender.

Oxford is addressing campus-based sexual violence by including compulsory sexual consent workshops in undergraduate orientation programmes.

“We are holding them [the 10 universities] as a beacon of hope that can encourage and inspire [others],” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “They will be learning from each other. One area where we are hoping they will learn from and exchange experiences is in the area of fighting violence against women because it’s a pandemic in the world.”

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