SOUTH AFRICA: A staffing pyramid with men at the top

South Africa has strong gender equity legislation and policies, says “all the right things” and women’s representation in the workplace compares favourably with other countries. But researchers say it is disappointing that women fill only one in four senior university positions.

In terms of gender, South African higher education displays the typical ‘pyramid’, says Dr Lesley Shackleton, a gender expert and founder of HERS-SA, a non-profit research and professional development group that supports African women academics.

“There are more women than men in the student and staff bodies, but they become steadily outnumbered at the senior lecturer, professorial and leadership levels,” Shackleton says.

Data collected by HERS-SA board member Sarah Riordan in April showed that while more than half of all higher education students and 52% of lecturers are women, only 87 or one in four hold top positions.

Riordan found that 17% of vice-chancellors were women: four out of 23, with one in an acting position. Five registrars were women (22%), there were 15 female deputy vice-chancellors (21%), 21 executive directors (21%), and 42 deans (28%). In 2005, fewer than one in five full professors were women, according to national Department of Education figures.

Yet South Africa compares reasonably well with other countries around the world, Shackleton says: “We are worse off than Australia, better than the UK, and similar to or better than many other African countries.”

The situation has improved over the dozen years of South African democracy. While women comprised 43% of all students in 1993, within 10 years nearly two-thirds were women – although, as elsewhere, they were clustered in certain fields and under-represented in the sciences. From 1995, the proportion of women professors grew from 13% to 19% and their share of senior lecturers rose to 38%.

“South Africa has favourable legislation and policies, supportive gender initiatives, and we are all saying the right things,” Shackleton says. “But somehow this has not made a sizeable difference. I believe there are deep cultural issues at play that make it difficult to achieve greater gender equity.

“I speak to women who are doing their PhDs and they feel that the world is their oyster. I talk to women of 45 to 50 years and they are disillusioned. Something has happened to sideline them, and they have not made the same progress as their male colleagues.”

One problem, she contends, is that different constitutionally-enshrined rights to equity do not all enjoy the same priority. “Black people, women and the disabled are all lumped together as ‘designated groups’ that need to be given opportunities and to achieve equity. But race is seen as the most pressing issue and so women and the disabled tend to be marginalised.”

A range of factors contribute to the dashed hopes of many female academics and senior managers, researchers believe. Women hit the much talked-about ‘glass ceiling’, the invisible layer they struggle to break through because of hidden prejudices.

Social factors can disadvantage women: while male scholars proceed seamlessly through their PhDs and postdoctoral research, attend conferences and pursue their careers, many women become sidetracked by starting a family or needing to care for a relative.

“Often women’s careers start later and life and they continue to be distracted by other responsibilities, so they struggle to clinch funding or career opportunities as easily as men,” Shackleton says. “Some people also contend that not all women want top positions and so not all try out for them; then there is the fact that the academic environment has a most masculine culture not particularly welcoming to women.”

Achieving higher representation of women in senior positions in universities will be a long and slow project but it can be helped along in various ways. HERS-SA believes that role models are important and so it assists women to get into top positions in executive and academic posts, such as finance director or vice-chancellor.

“It is important for people to see women in leadership roles,” Shackleton says. “It is also important that women support other women”.

A number of initiatives are underway to encourage more women to pursue academic careers. The National Research Foundation assists women to pursue doctoral and postdoctoral research – and recently raised the maximum age for research grants to accommodate late-starting women.

Since its launch in 2000, HERS-SA – inspired by HERS-America – has provided professional development for more than 800 university women, mainly South Africans but also those from other African countries. Universities have affirmative action policies and practices in place that encourage opportunities for women and black academics.

In March next year, HERS-SA and the vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa, along with the Education Department and the advisory Council of Higher Education, will hold a high-level conference on women in higher education. It will tackle pipeline issues, institutional cultures, the glass ceiling and other possible impediments to gender equity in academia.

“We want to put an action plan and commitment document together that vice-chancellors will sign into, committing universities to more pro-active promotion of women in higher education,” Shackleton says. “This was done in Australia, and it has proved successful.”