South African universities are actively pursuing gender equality and academic advancement opportunities to substantially increase the number of women professors and leading researchers.
At the University of Pretoria (UP) we have a total of 4 756 women researchers, which is 53% of the total number of researchers (8 973) employed by the university. Of the these, 2 574 (29%) are black women.
This reflects an encouraging trend towards gender equality, but we are acutely aware that numbers and percentages can mask what is happening at the highest academic levels. The higher you go in academia in South Africa, as in business and government, the more men you find, while women are glaringly under-represented.
At UP, for example, we have 83 (32.5%) women professors out of a total of 255. The number of UP researchers with National Research Foundation ratings is 528, of which 190 (36%) are women, while only three of our 14 NRF A-rated researchers are women. All NRF ratings reflect significant academic research achievements, with A-ratings as the pinnacle.
Women constitute the majority of the population but, tellingly, 25 years into our democracy, the percentage is not reflected in the professoriate and senior academic positions. It is a mirror of wider society. Regardless of where you look on the map, there are too few women in decision-making roles, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths. This gender gap has deep implications for the future of an inclusive and sustainable local and global economy.
The journey to becoming a professor and leading researcher can take up to 28 years, and it requires concentrated time dedicated to research, knowledge production, conference presentations, reputation-building, teaching undergraduates, supervising postgraduates, and publishing books and papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Early career academics are often assigned heavy teaching loads, which significantly detracts from the time they can spend researching and attaining their doctoral and postdoctoral qualifications — prerequisites for academic career advancement. Early career academics are also often employed on short-term postdoctoral or contract appointments, which offer no long-term career prospects or job security.
Towards addressing this, UP, through our department of research and innovation, is foregrounding a number of programmes in support of early career academics, with specific reference to black and female researchers.
All our programmes are strongly underpinned by mentorship, which has been demonstrated to accelerate the time frame from early career academic to professor to 15 to 20 years, instead of 28 years.
Our programmes include covering doctoral costs and supporting early career academics to undertake postdoctoral fellowships; significantly reducing their teaching load; giving them time off to focus on their research and publication outputs; offering one-on-one mentoring, writing and publishing clinics; facilitating staff exchange programmes with partner institutions globally, joint degrees and visiting professors from abroad; and providing legal counsel and advice on intellectual property management.
A case in point is the faculty of humanities identifying slow progress in the diversification of its academic staff corps as a key strategic focus of its endeavours to achieve its core goals set out in its Strategic Plan 2025. The Mellon Foundation subsequently allocated a grant to the faculty to support and build the careers of black academic staff members at the level of senior lecturer and associate professor respectively in order to grow and diversify the humanities professoriate.
This project is in line with the university’s prioritisation of such interventions. In terms of the Mellon Foundation grant, a number of black South African academics were identified for inclusion in the project, targeted to receive academic career-development grants.
One of the programmes we focus on is the department of higher education and training’s new generation of academics programme (nGAP) to develop the career trajectory of outstanding early career academics. It is the largest programme in the Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework.
UP has the largest number of nGAP academics of all South African universities. On the programme, early career academics are also appointed into permanent posts that are firmly factored into long-term staffing plans from the outset.
The appointments are governed by contracts that spell out the expectations, obligations, roles and responsibilities of the university and of the newly appointed academic.
UP also funds its own research development programme, which provides seed funding of R50 000 a year to researchers seeking to establish their research careers. The emphasis is on women and black researchers.
Another programme UP offers is the black women academic mentorship programme, an NRF-funded initiative that mentors them in the preparation of grant applications and applications for NRF rating.
We believe that women bring something special to the academy. Part of this stems from women understanding the social dynamics of discrimination that stop people, and therefore society, from succeeding. This plugs directly into our research that matters focus, where we believe in supporting research that attempts to solve the complex issues in our society, including all forms of inequality and discrimination, unemployment, climate change, health problems and food security. We want women researchers to be highly visible in solving these issues because this is how we will move towards creating the society contemplated in the Constitution, the National Development Plan, the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and the United Nations’s sustainable development goals.
The UN points out that “science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the sustainable development goals”. In higher education, the gender gap demands of us to unmask the statistics and ensure that we are concertedly working towards more than 50% of women professors and NRF A-rated researchers, to set an example for society, and bring women into the top leadership mainstream.
Professor Tawana Kupe is vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria