Female middle managers overlooked and unappreciated

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Aug 26, 2021

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Edwin Naidu

UNTIL recently, most of the scholarly work on leadership was focused on male leaders. As a result, male behaviours and characteristics in leadership roles have been the standard against which female leaders are assessed, according to Masentle Lengane, employment equity director at Unisa.

She said male-centric leadership models and norms have limited women’s aspirations regarding leadership, as well as their access to leadership roles. The under-representation of women in academic administration suggests that masculine practices and leadership norms function to exclude women.

Lengane made her comments in an address on Thursday during a Women’s Month webinar organised by the Higher Education Resource Services South Africa (HERS-SA) and Universities South Africa’s (USAf) transformation managers forum as part of its series on gender transformation in higher education.

A qualified teacher, Lengane has been implementing and monitoring employment equity and transformation at Unisa for the past 19 years and represents the university on the Higher Education Transformation Managers Forum.

Describing them as the “frozen middle”, Lengane said middle managers were often under-appreciated, overworked, and overlooked.

“Long hours and large personal sacrifices typical of a middle management position only add to the discontent. And nowhere is that more evident than with middle managers who are women,” she stated.

She said the under-representation of women in senior administrative positions in academe results in the waste of administrative talent at a time when higher education faces serious challenges that will be met only with strong, effective leadership.

“Women possess great potential to be transformative leaders in the academy at a time when their talents are much needed. Because they have not been socialised in accordance with the male-centric leadership model, they are relative outsiders who must forge new ways of leading.”

Referring to a report in the University World News (2021), she noted that female enrolment in higher education had tripled globally between 1995 and 2018. She said recent research has provided evidence that the gender gap in higher education has declined very little in the recent decades and closely matches the continued gender inequality in the labour market.

Furthermore, the “equal access” to an academic education and career that women have enjoyed for the past years has not thus far led to “equal outcome” in terms of leadership and academic positions, pay, research and publications in a higher education setting, according to the report.

Research further states that employment opportunities are distributed unevenly and the “mechanisms to ensure equal opportunities and outcomes are elusive” for women in higher education.

Furthermore, evidence from research points to institutions tending to exclude women due to the micro-politics (networking and other informal interactions).

“As a result, female administrators are not motivated to apply and compete for leadership positions. With this curtailed level of representation, it is problematic for women to reach leadership positions in universities,” Lengane added.

She called for leadership development, fitting in and breaking barriers or identifying, training, and mentoring of potential leaders and providing opportunities for networking and career goal setting.

“When women support one another, we’re all lifted up.”

She said that a study on successful female leaders in the Harvard Business Review (2021) showed that women with an inner circle of successful female friends were more likely to land executive positions and receive higher pay.

“In our personal lives, too, research shows that close female friendships promote better mental and physical well-being, influence the way we respond to stress, and even help us live longer.”

Lengane cited a trend of women who have reached a busy leadership role, forgetting how their own career began and the opportunities and advice received.

“Some women, middle managers, say that if it were not for the many amazing women who mentored them along their path, they may not have ended up working in an industry that, although challenging, is extremely rewarding. We need to champion and advocate for each other.

“If you’re in a leadership role, recommend women to the decision-makers. And, if you hear about an opportunity and know a female colleague who’d be perfect for it, tell her about it. Make it part of your mantra to laud other women’s gifts and talents, so that they feel stronger and more confident about using them,” she said.

By empowering each other, Lengane said the road to success is shared, and by celebrating one other’s achievements, “we all shine a bit brighter”.

In an address entitled “Systems and processes – promotions, learning opportunities”, Ruby-Ann Levendal, director of transformation at Nelson Mandela University, said there were a variety of factors impacting women in leadership in the higher education sector.

As in literature, culturally restrictive organisational environments included white/black male domination, exclusive networks, where the status quo entrenched institutional cultures resisting change, and maintained organisational hierarchies.

In particular, she lamented the lack of flexibility in working conditions for women, especially on “equal work for equal pay” and gender-based violations.

She said there has to be meaningful inclusivity and participation in decision-making processes. Institutions had to walk the talk in addressing organisational culture and human resources division must be focused on talent identification and nurturing of potential leaders.

Addressing the plight of non-academics staff experiences in higher education, Busisiwe Ramabodu, director of human resources development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said masculine tendencies continued to exclude women and there was an ambivalent attitude towards change.

At UKZN, she said there has been steady progress in terms of representation of females.

“Approximately 55% of the workforce and 48% in the academic sector. Women represent 27.3% at top management and 41.8% at senior management. At the intersection of race and gender, at top management and professor level there is still much work to do,” she said.

Concluding her presentation, Ramabodu said: “As women; we don’t need empowerment. We are intelligent and capable of acquiring the necessary skills. We are capable of achieving excellence in the roles we are placed in. But what we need is respect.”

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