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Male-dominated institutions pay lip service to gender reforms

Former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Picture: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Picture: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Published Jul 31, 2022


Johannesburg - Men once more ruled the roost at the ANC KwaZulu Natal elective in the race for leadership of the governing party’s largest province. Nomagugu Simelane – the only female official, was elected deputy chair as South Africa prepares to kick off its annual lip-sync contest (National Women’s Day) showing off how much we love, treat and respect women as equals.

But South Africa is not alone when it comes to making noise about putting our faith in women and ensuring that African women play a role as critical problem solvers in the 21st century.

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In a chapter on African women and girls, a frank assessment by the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, entitled Foresight Africa 2022, confirmed what University World News and many others have reported consistently over the past few years concerning the woeful progress in respect of gender at tertiary institutions.

Despite the progress women in Africa have made in the professional sphere, they remain under-represented in strategic and essential positions. In fact, in academia, the report likens the representation of women to a pyramid where few women exist at the top and in key leadership positions, especially in Africa.

Only six out of the 26 higher education institutions in South Africa—home of some of Africa’s top universities—are led by women. They are Professor Thoko Mayekiso at the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Sibongile Muthwa at Nelson Mandela University, Professor Rushiella Songca at Walter Sisulu University, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng of the University of Cape Town, Professor Puleng LenkaBula at Unisa, and, Professor Xoliswa Mtose of the University of Zululand.

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First female Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa (UNISA) Professor Puleng LenkaBula. Photo: Unisa

In Kenya, out of 29 public universities, only six are led by women. Only eight percent of professors from Ghana’s public system are women. Out of 200 institutions, Nigeria has six female vice-chancellors – four in public universities and two in private universities.

A recent estimate by the Forum for Women Vice-Chancellors in Africa reported alarmingly that only 40 universities on the continent out of 1 500 institutions universities on the continent are headed by women.

Not so long ago, the chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf), Professor Sibongile Muthwa, said that the tertiary sector’s performance on gender in South Africa was very poor although in terms of the racial composition, at least in the visible leadership of universities, it was beginning to reflect some diversity. She was clear that in respect of gender transformation, universities had much more to do.

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South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training, the Department of Science and Innovation, as well as the National Research Foundation, have worked collectively to provide grants and support to train the different tiers of university managers from junior entry-level, academics, mid-level, academics and management, and management, as well as the senior level to create a pool.

According to Muthwa, however, attention needed to be given to what has held back gender equality as far as the leadership of the university sector was concerned. A number of vacancies in South African universities over the past few years saw at least four new appointments to vacant vice-chancellor roles by men.

The country’s higher education, science and technology boss Dr Blade Nzimande has consistently paid lip service to gender parity too. During his two terms, he’s never nominated a woman for appointment as Director-General.

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Concerning violence and changing the gender status quo, you can rely on Nzimande to appoint talk shops and then sit without acting on reports or their recommendations. As he steps down from the leadership of the South African Communist Party (SACP), perhaps during his term as higher education, science and innovation boss, he will reflect on how beyond the awful public relations he has done nothing to advance women in the tertiary sector to speak with any pride.

The challenges facing UCT vice-chancellor Professor Phakeng have been well- documented, however, compared to her colleagues, there is certainly nothing wrong with fighting patriarchy and racism, but she has a style that is refreshingly, and radically different to her peers.

UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

It attracts criticism, and perhaps, detracts from the work, too. “People watch what I wear, pick on the size of my earrings, people critique my hair, they wonder why I have an afro, is it a political statement? No man gets criticised for the colour of the suit he wears,” she once told me.

The Commission on Gender Equality reckons there are many reasons why the gender gap remains at places of higher learning, chiefly, South Africa being a patriarchal society; and the country’s institutions of higher learning were no exception to that phenomenon. But what has the commission done to address this in real terms?

According to the director of Higher Education Resources-South Africa (HERS-SA), Brightness Mangolothi, in South Africa, “policies alone are not sufficient to transform universities, hence there is a need for the governance system to be re-examined, because, as is, transformation will remain an ideal.” She was articulating the ongoing challenge for women in higher education throughout the African continent.

A conversation I had last year with the former, first woman, president of Mauritius and renowned scientist Ameena Gurib Fakim, put forward her view of women empowerment while the appointment of women in critical positions remained an issue, be it in academia, politics, business, etc. She was adamant that women are not meant to upset the status quo, and her appointment would be made through many other lenses besides gender – class, ethnicity, tribe, political affinities, etc.

Interviewed by SciDev.Net Professor Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, the first woman to become vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana in 71 years, said her journey was about overcoming systemic barriers, as men had dominated boardrooms and academia.

“Here in my university, the proportion of women academics, that’s just about 30 percent. And as you can imagine, the higher you go up the ranks, the fewer women that you find.”

Rebecca Afua Klege, Director of Research at the Henry J. Austin Health Center in the United States, and Research Fellow, Environmental Policy Research Unit – University of Cape Town, noted that although institutional efforts to increase the representation of women in academia were increasing across the region, they tended to focus on increasing female enrolment in undergraduate studies rather than the hiring and retention of women in senior leadership positions.

Traditional obstacles such as structural barriers, cultural beliefs and norms, societal expectations, gender stereotypes, and the patriarchal nature of many African academic institutions make it challenging to make any significant progress.

In a contributing piece to the report, the former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, argued that women’s leadership in Africa was not a new phenomenon. She said throughout Africa’s history, women were critical problem solvers, leading militaries during the pre-colonial period, as freedom fighters during independence movements, as transitional leaders during post-conflict periods, and as leaders during some of the worst economic, political, and health crises of the 21st century.

Moving forward, however, Sirleaf said Africa must harness women’s knowledge, skills, and talents at all levels of the problem-solving process, as a means of reclaiming the continent’s future.

Referring to her own experience of rebuilding a country previously engulfed in civil war for over 14 years, her administration oversaw, then, one of the deadliest health crises of the 21st century. As Africa’s first democratically elected woman president and Liberia’s first elected president of the post-conflict period, she had to pivot quickly in both attitude and action, as a means of responding to the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. Picture: Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

The outbreak posed a devastating threat to Liberia’s people and to the gains it had made in recovery and development.

Sirlief said: “Rather than falter, we leaned into the complex challenges the outbreak posed, crafting and embarking upon an approach that embraced the strategies called for community health workers and ordinary people fighting to save their loved ones.

“During this period, we lost many lives but averted a national crisis and found an inclusive and sustainable path of hope.”

Expanding on her vision for change, Sirleaf said a pivot is an art form that women leaders had perfected globally, making them critical problem solvers who are more responsive and effective during times of crisis.

In public leadership, effective pivoters engage in critical reflection and decisive decision-making as well as take on—simultaneously and seriously—a diversity of voices throughout the problem-solving process. Though pivoting requires a shift in direction or approach, the ultimate vision remains the same.

But the challenge in getting men to pivot beyond numbers and roping in women seemingly for the sake of it does little to deter the notion that in South Africa and Africa, the male-dominated leadership, most visibly in academia, pays lip service to changing the gender status quo. The African.

Naidu is a journalist and a communicator.