Are universities doing enough to foster women leaders?

A public forum on how universities help promote transformative leadership by women has highlighted the difficulty of framing policies that simultaneously encourage personal development and directly assist women in securing equal opportunities.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This discussion comes at a time when women outnumber men in university enrolment globally, but continue to trail men in leadership positions in government, research and the formal economy.

The forum was a session organised by University World News within a conference organised by the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program entitled “Learning for Action”, which was attended by partners of the Foundation's scholars programme and hosted by Michigan State University, at its East Lansing campus in the United States.

Members of the five-person panel included higher education administrators as well as scholars and administrators of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program. The forum posed the proposition: “Universities are not doing enough to foster young women’s transformative leadership.”

Ivy Mwai, the programme manager for education and learning at the MasterCard Foundation, moderated the discussion.

Brendan O’Malley, chairman and managing editor of University World News, set the context for the debate by pulling data from the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, released on the same day: “In terms of gender parity, Rwanda has moved up to fifth best in the world and shows that changes are happening in Africa and also across the world. Interestingly, the US is 45th by comparison and although it is best on educational equality, it is 73rd on political empowerment.”

Chinwe A Effiong, panellist and assistant dean for the Michigan State University MasterCard Scholars Program and Youth Empowerment Program, explained that the role of the university is ideally an enabling environment “designed to promote academic freedom, stimulate critical thinking, and produce graduates who go out into the world and become agents of change”.

However, she argued, “When the university goes beyond this role to assume the responsibility of rigging the system in favour of any group, including women, it undermines [women’s] ability to truly function as leaders.”

Is it the university’s responsibility?

Dorothy Nyambi, executive vice-president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences – Next Einstein Initiative, questioned the urgency to put the responsibility in the hands of the university, claiming that transformative leadership for women is “bigger, broader, and outside of the university”.

Focusing on the role of the university excludes the fact that women who exist outside its bounds also have the potential for transformative leadership. “Women need to be recognised,” she said, “as transformative leaders in every space that a woman finds herself; as a mother, as a wife, as a sister, an aunt, a cousin”.

She also connected historical trends in transformative leadership to women involved in movements for colonial freedom and against apartheid.

Violet Engeu Acumo, MasterCard Foundation Scholar at Michigan State University and one of 30 Ugandans participating in this year’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, shared her experiences of growing up as a girl in Uganda and having to forge a path for herself.

Her story exemplified the potential in using personal agency and rejection of victimisation for developing an identity as a leader. She pleaded: “Unfortunately, the sad reality is that nobody is going to wake up and just change the system. We need to… show the next generation of girls that we are worthy… so that by the time they get to university, regardless of whether the system has changed or not, they are in a position to thrive.”

For audience members, who were welcomed to participate in a question and answer session, this focus on personal agency and private life pushed up against the perceived realities of systemic and institutionalised effects of oppressive, patriarchal cultures across the globe.

Kofi Ohene Owusu-Daaku, dean of students and leader of the MasterCard Scholars Program at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, addressed this by highlighting the difference between equality and equity.

His argument was that giving everyone the same treatment in the university is akin to giving three individuals of differing height the same size bolsters to see over a tall fence; the boost will unfairly advantage the tallest individual and may not help the shortest individual at all.

Both Owusu-Daaku and Nyambi identified the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields as being a particularly important place to focus on equity over equality. Nyambi explained that women in STEM fields are at a double disadvantage; they both have to break into the field itself and attempt to attain a position of leadership.

Owusu-Daaku brought the conversation back to the aims of the university, arguing that although the “gold standard” of any university is to provide an enabling environment, “if the reality at universities does not meet this standard it needs to be worked at, needs to be challenged, needs to be enforced, otherwise it won’t happen”.

Access to higher education

Access to higher education was a unifying issue for the panellists, who agreed that more could be done to “widen the gates” of the university, a phrase used by one audience member.

While measures like quotas might serve to increase feelings of entitlement among women, as Effiong identified, all panellists agreed that the unequal burdens placed in many countries on girls for domestic work during their school years and the unreliability of standardised admissions measures, even the SAT in the United States, worked against girls in terms of equitable admission to the university.

As such, universities could re-evaluate their admissions practices for women, while still holding women to the same standards as men once they were accepted to the university, said Acumo.

Gender-based violence

Issues of sexual assault and gender-based violence served as a second point of agreement. Sexual harassment and assault are significant issues for women in African universities, Effiong admitted. They make university environments hostile and can affect their path toward leadership.

Effiong posed a two-part solution. First, girls need to be trained in emotional intelligence early on so that they are prepared to defend themselves against these realities. Second, universities can pair with governmental and civil organisations that address the same issues, directly protecting women and acting to change cultural assumptions among men on campuses.

Ways for universities to support women

Rima Afifi, professor and associate dean in the department of health promotion and community health, faculty of health sciences, at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, offered many ways that universities would be able to actively support women.

She suggested promoting opportunities for leadership within the university, instituting policies that promote gender equity such as family leave rather than maternal leave, establishing faculty training on gendered pedagogies, and developing curricula that focus on oppression as it affects all intersectionalities. She also stressed the importance of context in implementing these programmes and policies.

Afifi explained: “By rooting experience in context and providing space for exploration, I think the university creates the most effective paradigm for building skills and mindsets for transformative leadership.”

Effiong described one such programme recently established at Michigan State University. It is a women’s mentoring programme that meets twice a month to discuss issues such as networking and self-esteem. The programme, in its first few months of activity, has already had 125 women join.

At the end of the discussion, panellists evaluated the role international and domestic scholarship programmes might have in promoting women’s transformative leadership. Panellists focused on the potential for impact on socio-economic status disadvantages.

Afifi explained that socio-economic status is “often felt differently for boys and girls” because control and access of resources is different depending on gender.

Acumo spoke to the impact such a programme had on her ability to continue her transformative leadership, merging the power of institutional initiatives and personal agency: “When I go back to Uganda, it is not just a victory for me. It is a victory for thousands of girls who look up to me.”

* Participants in the University World News forum on the role of universities in fostering transformative leadership among women, held at the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program conference at Michigan State University last week, were, from left to right: moderator Ivy Mwai, programme manager for education and learning at the MasterCard Foundation; Dorothy Nyambi, executive vice-president of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences – Next Einstein Initiative; Rima Afifi, professor and associate dean in the department of health promotion and community health at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon; Violet Engeu Acumo from Uganda, a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at Michigan State University; Kofi Ohene Owusu-Daaku, dean of students and leader of the MasterCard Scholars Program at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana; and Chinwe A Offing, assistant dean for the Michigan State University MasterCard Scholars Program and Youth Empowerment Program.