Although attaining gender equality in wider society is a slow journey, it is more shocking that the same is true for the higher education sector. After all, it is within these hallowed halls that we push the boundaries of what is possible and question the norms. This is where new knowledge is unearthed, where multidisciplinary approaches to complex social problems are applied and where innovation is encouraged. Yet here too, the statistics on gender equality paint a dismal picture.
To date, the higher education sector is still dominated by white men, many of whom occupy management positions. Out of 26 higher education institutions, only four are led by women — Thoko Mayekiso at the University of Mpumalanga, Sibongile Muthwa at Nelson Mandela University, Mamokgethi Phakeng at the University of Cape Town, and Xoliswa Mtose at the University of Zululand.
According to statistics published by the Council for Higher Education, there were 56 527 academic staff in 2017. Of these, 13 531 held PhDs, of which only 42.06% were held by women academics. The council also found that of the 3 040 senior managers in the higher education sector, only 44.76% were women. Women academics made up only 29% of professors, 41% of associate professors and 46% of senior lecturers.
But, at the lecturer and junior lecturer level, women dominated in numbers. This tells us that although women make up the majority of the workforce, their representation at decision-making levels remains low.
With few women at top management level, institutions remain patriarchal environments in which the particular difficulties that women face, and their specific needs, are ignored. Career progression for women is further delayed by other factors such as enabling cultures geared towards the advancement of men, societal perceptions that men are better leaders, and the low number of women who apply for senior and top management positions because of a workplace culture that prides itself on long, intensive workdays that may have an effect on a woman’s other responsibilities. In addition, women at senior and top management levels often have to deal with hostility from men — and they do the same work as men but earn less.
Most women, especially black African women, still fulfil the roles of being both staff and postgraduate student, which means they cannot concentrate on their research and on sourcing study and research grants. They are also expected to teach undergraduate classes that come with added administrative duties. In the end, most women opt to study part time, affecting the rate at which they progress up the career ladder.
These are realities in which four academics — Sarah Riordan, Desiree Simonis, Penny Franz and the late Lesley Shackleton — established Higher Education Resource Services — South Africa (Hers-SA), a nonprofit organisation founded in 2003 to address the shortage of women in senior positions in higher education.
Sixteen years later, Hers-SA remains committed to its mission. To date, more than 1 200 women attended the annual Hers-SA Academy, a weeklong residential programme that provides 80 women from universities with the opportunity to develop their leadership skills to take up middle, senior and top management level positions. Women from other African countries have also participated, enabling academic and support staff in South Africa to learn from their peers working in other parts of the continent.
Over the past four years, research compiled from the experiences of women indicate that they are still viewed as tokens; excluded, bullied and silenced; and with limited access to mentors. Hearings held at various higher education institutions by the Commission for Gender Equality found that women continue to be marginalised, despite South Africa having one of the most progressive legal frameworks for gender equity in the world, and that some universities do not have policies, systems and programmes in place to ensure gender transformation. The time has come for women — and men — to find workable solutions.
Adaptable work environments
South Africa has a high level of women-headed households, which means less income and support for caregiving responsibilities. Daycare and aftercare facilities on campus can make a huge difference. In addition, multigenerational (baby boomers, generation X and millennials) employees work in the same offices, bringing both opportunities and problems.
Young staff members starting families are often made to feel incompetent and irresponsible when they object to meetings being held at times that make it impossible for them to juggle work and family responsibilities. Although there is already some flexibility in academia, the reality is that the demands of the workplace can easily overtake personal time and lead to burnout.
Mentors and coaches
Two forms of support that any leader can benefit from are mentors and coaches. A mentor is a more experienced person willing to share knowledge with someone less experienced in a relationship of mutual trust. A coach focuses on tasks and performance and is usually someone in the workplace.
Policies aimed at advancing gender transformation are important, but so are the monitoring and evaluation of policy implementation. When higher education institutions’ senates are still dominated by white men, the number of women, in particular black women, need to be increased. There are also disparities in the advancement of academic and support staff. Some universities have promotion policies for academics, but the same cannot be said for support staff, with many having to wait for senior staff to resign (or die) or to apply for a job level regrade to have an opportunity to move up the ranks. Yet women academics can still be blocked from being promoted because men form the majority on promotion and appointment interview committees.
More women with PhDs
One of the objectives of the 2030 National Development Plan on Education, Training and Innovation, is to increase the percentage of staff with PhDs. More women with PhDs is critical because it is a minimum requirement for most senior management positions, and will also enable an increased pool of supervisors.
A number of barriers to achieving this objective have been identified, including problems with funding; institutional capacity for governing, planning or managing doctoral programmes; doctoral supervisors’ capacity; freedom in selecting topics; international information sharing; doctoral candidate readiness; and the supervisory process.
Researchers have tried to understand the difficulties that doctoral candidates experience and have found that barriers faced by black African students included feeling lost and isolated in their postgraduate studies; having difficulty relating postgraduate experiences to family and friends because of being a first-generation student; having difficult relationships with their supervisors; having insufficient funding for postgraduate studies; having feelings of racial inferiority; experiencing undercurrents of institutionalised racism and culture; and having inadequate guidance and support in becoming an academic.
Gender-based violence in academic institutions is prevalent. It is a sad reality that Hers-SA has strongly condemned. For this reason, the appointment of a task team to tackle gender-based violence and sexual harassment on campuses is welcomed.
This appointment was in response to a group of academics who wrote an open letter to Naledi Pandor, the former minister of higher education and training. Some of the issues highlighted in the letter were that black African women staff members who have minority and junior status were being pressured to exchange sexual favours for job security.
The letter also brought to light the issues that confronted female students.
The intraconflict dynamics between women is a neglected discussion. Many women are reluctant to support other women once they have been appointed to leadership positions. Others take on the same behaviours as their male counterparts, leading to them being seen as too masculine in their leadership style and penalised for it, or keeping other women from climbing the ladder.
Women need to support each other to see real change. They should also make it a norm to network and collaborate with colleagues inside and outside their institutions, nationally and internationally.
Gender transformation will remain an ideal if there is not a commitment to applying policies to ensure gender equality. At the current rate of change, women will be discussing the same issues come next Women’s Month.
Brightness Mangolothi is the director of Hers-SA. Lynne Rippenaar-Moses, the nonprofit’s chair, also provided input to this article