SOUTH AFRICA: Universities and gender and the MDGs

Equity and redress policies and constitutional provisions distinctive to South Africa have driven rapid changes in the gender profile of higher education, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, told the Commonwealth Association of Universities conference in Cape Town last week. But deep patterns of bias continued and policies needed to be sharpened.

The conference on Universities and the Millennium Development Goals heard from Professor Tamara Shefer, head of women's and gender studies at the University of the Western Cape, that gender issues intersected with the MDGs around several goals including gender equity, education, health and poverty.

She identified two key roles for higher education in supporting the goals through action on gender - being a role model for civil society and growing leaders of tomorrow, and contributing to gender policies and practices with knowledge production and theory.

"We need to get our own house in order," Shefer argued. "We can't contribute to the MDGs if we're not addressing issues in our own context." While South African universities had made advances in gender equality among students and staff, a recent ministerial report uncovered pervasive sexism (and racism) on campuses across the country.

In the mid-1990s there were more men than women students enrolled in South African higher education. By 2000, 53% of students were women and the proportion rose to 55.5% in 2007. A similar picture unfolded among staff, though levels lagged behind those of students. In 2006, for the first time, women employees (51%) outnumbered men in universities.

But beneath the veil of statistics, Cheryl de la Rey revealed, the picture looked different.

"The percentage of female students decreases as the level of study increases and participation is also skewed by field of study. Men comprise 58% of PhD students and 57% in the science, engineering and technology fields. This is not unique to South Africa. The only thing that is unique is that it took us a much shorter time to reach this point."

Among staff, 36% of senior managers and 24% of professors and associate professors were women, and women were concentrated in lower level jobs. In 2002 only 20% of all academic publications had women authors, and women were more likely to be co-authors of scientific papers.

"If we continue without doing anything different, will the patterns of change continue?" asked De la Ray. "The answer is a definite no. In northern hemisphere countries including Finland, Sweden and North America, certain trends remain persistent and these are the patterns we need to interrogate."

De la Rey said policy instruments had played a major role in bringing about gender advances in higher education. "If there are lessons from South Africa, it is this. The constitutional provisions we have, for both equality and redress, are distinctive.

"The provision for redress says it is not sufficient to simply remove discrimination in policies. You have to do something proactive. That has allowed South Africa to implement legislation around employment equity."

Equity laws require any organisation employing more than 50 people, including universities, to report annually to the Department of Labour on targets around race, gender and other areas. They must also report on whether targets have been met and if not, reasons must be provided.

"The legislation has become more nuanced. Organisations are now also required to provide information on the average level of remuneration for each category, and indicate the average remuneration for men versus women, black versus white people and so on," said De la Rey. "This information provides an opportunity for institutions to reflect on their practices."

Aside from complying with equity and redress provisions in a progressive constitution, universities have had to respond to imperatives around these issues in other policies and legislation, such as the National Plan for Higher Education and National Research and Development Strategy.

"But while policy is crucial, unless there are steering mechanisms it does not take us far enough," De la Rey said. The government steers higher education using three instruments - planning, funding and quality assurance - and these have helped to promote gender advancement.

In three-year rolling plans submitted to the department, universities must indicate how they are dealing with gender and race equity. The Higher Education Quality Committee took an unusual, developmental approach to quality assurance and a view on transformation. "When an institution is subjected to an audit, it has to reflect on the participation of black people and women," De la Rey explained.

Having driven rapidly down the road of gender advancement, South Africa still needed to reflect on deeper levels of gender and racial bias in higher education. "It is really important that we now focus on subjective, everyday micro-levels of organisational culture - how the construction of careers is shaped by gender."

De la Rey, a professor of psychology, said her research on women in higher education, based on extensive interviews and biographies, revealed that women academics often suggested their careers were unplanned. "Luck had something to do with it. Things just happened along the way. By contrast, among male scientists the role of explicit planning comes to the fore."

Women's CVs often showed late entry into a career and a gap related to having young children. Women's careers were also much more connected to their relationships to husbands, parents and kids. "If a woman takes up employment in another country or city, it's tied to relationships. With men there is no mention of relationships as a factor in careers."

Scientific careers depend heavily on reputation, which is built is by participating in networks and attending conferences. Funding grants and publications depend on reputation. "Patterns of bias are evident in how that system works. Women are less able to travel because of their role in family, and that affects how they position themselves in terms of management."

Other factors included the role of peers, who can be gatekeepers and-or agents of change, and careers being predicated on individual competition - patterns of co-authorship were interesting in terms of how women feel about being competitive in an explicit way.

Yet another bias was that selection committees comprised mostly men. "Disadvantage has an accumulative effect," said De la Rey. The issue was how scientific careers were constructed in ways that privileged dominant forms of masculinity, and the question for committees was whether the disadvantages women academics faced were recognised.

"Should we change the rules regarding what it takes to be a professor? Do we bring equivalence into CV comparisons? Do we look at how universities allocate conference and travel funding, and at opportunities available for staff development? How do we introduce equity rather than just equality?

"These issues are being fiercely debated. Policy changes help but they are often too blunt and have limited effect. We need sharper mechanisms and changes at the micro-level of everyday gender bias. These debates must also happen in disciplinary associations and organisations.

South Africa, De la Rey argued, needed wider, coordinated strategies encompassing professional and disciplinary bodies and including sector-level interventions.

"Through collaboration and partnerships we have opportunities to look at new ways of challenging patterns of gender tied to reputation. We have an acute shortage of high-level skills and can't afford to ignore 52% of our population. We have to tap into the whole pool of potential or we will not succeed in taking our country forward."