SOUTH AFRICA: Where are the women?

A dearth in leadership in higher education in South Africa – and the world – can be attributed to gendered institutional cultures that “prevent us from seeing the leadership potential that exists in half the population, our women”. So said Dr Mamphela Ramphele, author, business women, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town and an ex-managing director of the World Bank at an “Institutional cultures and higher education leadership: Where are the women?” conference held in Cape Town. Although more than half of university students and staff in South Africa are women, only three of 23 universities are led by women who comprise just 17% of deputy vice-chancellors and 21% of deans.

“Getting to grips with institutional cultures is no easy matter,” Ramphele stressed. “It will take a deliberate shift in the frame of reference from traditional authoritarianism towards an enabling culture in which the public interest intersects with the personal, the professional and political interests of all of us.”

The conference on 27 and 28 March was organised by HERS-SA, a non-profit organisation aimed at improving the status of women in higher education, the advisory Council on Higher Education (CHE), the Department of Education, and the vice-chancellors’ association Higher Education South Africa (HESA).

It was held to explore how institutional cultures and gendered preconceptions influence the lack of women in higher education leadership, and aimed to impact on institutional practice,
said Dr Lesley Shackleton, director of HERS-SA.

Opening speakers Ramphele and Professor Lidia Brito, a former higher education minister in Mozambique who is currently at University Eduardo Mondlane, pointed out that challenges around leadership, institutional cultures and gender-based power constructs were not peculiar to universities in Southern Africa.

However, as places of learning and knowledge production that play key roles in providing critical intellectual leadership to guide the transformation both of themselves and the broader society – and as places that educate leaders of the future – universities should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve gender equity in senior positions.

“What are our youth seeing when they look at our present higher education leadership?” asked Ramphele: “Do we have vice-chancellors who are speaking out and playing a leadership role in transforming our society? Are young people seeing their leaders promoting lively debate and questioning society’s norms and practices? Is their university experience causing them to think about or question the norms they grew up with?” I suggest not enough”.

Of 369 leadership positions surveyed in South African higher education, only 85 – 23% – are occupied by women, said Ramphele. “It is common knowledge that this bias is also found among our academic leaders, our professors and associate professors. So our young people learn that leaders are men.”

Ramphele suggested there were four essential pillars to transformation. One was acknowledging that South African society had “a strong authoritarian, racist and sexist culture”. A second was accepting that the reconciliation process had left “unfinished business by deliberately excluding violations of socio-economic rights for sexist and racist motives”.

Third, power should be redefined “away from a control model to an enabling model. Power as the capacity to act and enable others to do likewise, reframes social relationships from those characterised by domination of one group or sector over others to relationships that thrive on celebration of diversity.” Finally, good leadership should become “empowering of all to rise to their full potential for the greater good of the institution and society as a whole”.

Brito pointed out that universities often stated commitments to equity in their vision and mission while continuing to measure success in terms of numbers. This resulted in failure to understand how subtle forms of discrimination in institutional cultures created barriers to women's success.

She called on universities not to ignore the wealth of women leadership available, and emphasised that it was not only the task of university managers or broader society to effect change, but that women themselves have a critical role to play.

A conference declaration acknowledged that significant progress has been made to promote gender and race equity in higher education, in relation to student access, but expressed concern about low representation of women at all levels of leadership and institutional cultures that perpetuate old patterns of racial and gender discrimination.

The declaration called on the education department and CHE to promote the importance of equity at senior leadership levels. The department should consider setting targets with time-frames to increase the representation of women in senior positions at universities, it said, while the CHE should monitor progress towards gender equity in leadership positions.

It also called on HESA to draw up a national plan of action on women in higher education leadership, to support institutional and sector-wide initiatives towards achieving targets set for representation of women in senior positions. It also called on universities to:

* Identify institutional barriers to equity and find innovative ways to tackle them.
* Initiate annual monitoring and reporting to councils on gender equity in senior positions.
* Examine employment policies and their implementation, particularly in senior positions.
* Promote and monitor fair representation of women on committees and external bodies.
* Facilitate women's participation in leadership development initiatives.
* Promote a holistic, integrated and sustained approach to gender equity.

In her closing address to the conference, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor said universities – which are expected to be places of innovative transformation – had not changed enough since democracy was achieved 14 years ago.

“The manner of teaching and assessing, the practices of curriculum development, and the structures of institutional and statutory governance are largely as they have been for hundreds of years,” she said, adding that universities also fell short of the ideals embodied in South Africa’s progressive constitution.

A first key attribute of transformation was an institution that “unreservedly embeds non-racism, non-sexism, and democracy in all its practices,” Pandor said. Universities should not be able to hide behind legacies as a means of explaining negative practices.

Second, there had to be a shared understanding that the specific mandate of universities was to support education and success. Low through-put rates of our universities were a serious cause for concern, “more serious because it appears institutions are happy to admit failure, and few devote deliberate attention to supporting and rewarding success.”

Third, universities “should be about personal growth, intellectual maturity and an introduction to the world beyond our borders”. But research on student sexual beliefs and HIV-Aids, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and homophobic attitudes “indicate the empowerment gaps that should be attended to”.

Fourth, universities should be based on a fundamental belief in democratic values and practices. Pandor said that as structures of governance changed ‘for the better’ old negative practices appeared to be revived or sustained.

Women, Pandor concluded, “should show courage that is currently absent by directly giving attention to the transformation tasks that continue to need real action from all stakeholders in higher education. We trust that in promoting women leadership in higher education we will not clone practices and approaches that have not turned higher education on its head.”