Call to walk the talk on transformation agenda
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Men who continue to suppress women in the country's ivory towers of learning should be named and shamed, said a council member at one of the country's top institutions. Adding to the call, South Africa's Commission on Gender (CGE) has put pressure on the government for policy intervention to ensure parity.
UCT Council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama said male counterparts who support women colleagues must be acknowledged.
"There are men out there who are quite progressive, and we must make sure that they get the support and recognition that they deserve. But we must be fearless in challenging men who assisted in discriminating against women. So, men who are the force behind the headwinds that we struggle with as women, they must be named and shamed," said Ngonyama.
She said the age-old culture of boys clubs, which works against women, persists, with significant decisions at higher learning places outside of formal meetings, like golf courses, for example. "There are plenty of examples of bias by men against women," she said.
Javu Baloyi, the spokesperson for the commission, said the Department of Higher Education must ensure a clear gender transformation agenda with succession plans cognisant of gender imperatives in place.
"Remember vice-chancellors tipped to take over are known well in advance. Some of the appointments need to be vetoed. The commission must equally have a voice during this process, and it could augur well for a better future when it comes to the appointment of vice-chancellors," Baloyi said.
Over the past three years in South Africa, when opportunities to consider women for the top jobs at three institutions arose, men were given the nod.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Professor Tawana Kupe, and Professor Nana Poku were appointed vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, respectively.
But at the Walter Sisulu University, following the departure of Rob Midgley over claims of impropriety linked to the purchase of student accommodation, the first female vice-chancellor, Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca, will be inaugurated in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, on October 9.
But this is not enough. Baloyi said a policy directive and change are necessary to address the gender imbalances.
“To achieve the gender transformation as per CGE hearings on higher education, there is a need for policy change that will ensure women are not treated as if they don't have the capacity and the necessary qualifications to lead these institutions,” he said.
Baloyi said the constant attacks on women vice-chancellors somewhat have genesis in women not wanting to take up these positions.
“The Commission has noted that in theory, the universities do want to change. We have seen some appointments of women as heads of the council. It's a step in the right direction, but in practice, there is a slow pace of gender transformation,” he said.
Universities South Africa (USAf) Chairperson Sibongile Muthwa said there should be a more equitable representation of women and people of colour in the high echelons of universities. “We have seen a good group of women that are coming up in the sector. But we need to put in place a concerted effort and invest more than the Department of Higher Education and Training to change universities by investing in gender parity.”
Director of Higher Education Resources-South Africa (HERS-SA), Brightness Mangolothi, said, in South Africa, the doors of ivory towers remain (white) male-led in South Africa, and change could take place when there's a critical mass of women in senior leadership.
“Policies alone are not sufficient to transform universities, hence a need for a governance system to be re-examined because, as is, the transformation will remain an ideal,” she said, articulating the ongoing challenge for women in higher education in South Africa and on the African continent.
Over and above the programmes aimed at advancing women leaders, in 2020, HERS-SA launched coaching support and, in 2021, the mentorship programme. These interventions are creating a shift needed in South African higher education.
Vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, said there is a sense of unfairness at how women in leadership roles are subject to scrutiny and racism.
"All women vice-chancellors will tell you similar stories. I've been watching how the vice-chancellor of Unisa (Professor Puleng LenkaBula) has come under attack. It's not an easy institution. She comes in, makes decisions. They don't like it. They attack her," she said.
Phakeng said, worse, was critics questioning her qualifications when she had met all the requirements for the role. "We have had many vice-chancellors without PhDs in this country. Nobody's written about it, and then we are told the vice-chancellor of Unisa doesn't even qualify."
At UCT, Phakeng said policies were in place to build a pipeline of women academics, and from her salary, she donates 20% to support women in postgraduate studies.
Scientist and former president of Mauritius Ameena Gurib Fakim said misogyny lies at the heart of the problems hampering women from taking their place at the top of higher learning institutions and society.
She often said when things went wrong, women were brought in to tidy up. "Look at Tunisia's appointment for Prime Minister, when there is a mess, bring in a woman," she said.
With the country in crisis, Tunisian President Kais Saied appointed Najla Bouden Romdhan as the first female prime minister in the country's history.
Fakim said women were still hitting a brick wall when it came to opportunities not only in academia, but in all walks of life.