Universities body to probe gender imbalance at top

The apex body representing vice-chancellors of South Africa's public universities plans to investigate why women are struggling to break through the glass ceiling en route to heading institutions of higher learning.

“We hope to carry out a study this year to determine what the situation is. Hopefully, we will have a much better idea once it is done,” said Professor Ahmed Bawa, chief executive officer of Universities South Africa (USAf), whose members comprise the heads of the country’s 26 tertiary education institutions.

According to Bawa, 58% of the students in South African universities are women and 42% men. “This gap has to begin to represent itself in the staff structures of universities. And indeed there are more women than men at lecturer level. However, we are not seeing the same trend at the senior levels. And this clearly has to be an area of investigation,” he told University World News.

National data

National data on gender representation with respect to staffing in universities in 2016, drawn from the Higher Education Management Information System, shows that only 27.5% of professors in South African institutions (from a total of 2,218) are female, while the figure is slightly higher at 39.5% for associate professor from a total of 2,131. At senior lecturer level, women occupy 45.1% of the (4,890) posts, while at lecturer and junior lecturer levels, they make up 53.3% (out of 8,498 posts) and 56.6% (out of 1,035 posts) respectively.

The planned USAf probe into gender imbalance at senior management levels of universities comes as South Africa prepares to celebrate National Women’s Day on 9 August and the sector bids farewell to one of the country’s top academics, Professor Cheryl de la Rey – the first woman and black person to breach the uppermost glass ceiling at the University of Pretoria in 101 years.

Just five of the country’s 26 vice-chancellors are women, with this statistic set to drop when De la Rey, chosen after a global search in which she was described as an “exceptional candidate”, takes up a post as vice-chancellor at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury in February 2019.

“This is deeply concerning,” says Bawa of the statistics concerning women vice-chancellors. “It would be fair to say that the upper echelons of higher education leadership are still very male-centred. Having said this, the role played by the five [existing] women vice-chancellors is exceptional,” he said.

Impediments to women?

Bawa said three areas of concern need to form part of the USAf investigation. “The first is: Are there impediments in the system that prevent women from being selected into vice-chancellor positions? The second is whether the pipeline of candidates is large enough. The answer to this is very well known. The pipeline is very narrow. We must understand why it is that women academics are not progressing into professorships at sufficiently high levels. The third is to study whether there are barriers that prevent women from applying for these vice-chancellor positions,” he said.

The other four women currently leading their institutions include Pretoria-born maths professor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, who became vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town on 1 July; Professor Thoko Mayekiso, who is vice-chancellor of one of the country’s newest institutions, the University of Mpumalanga; Dr Sibongile Muthwa, who was appointed head of the Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape in October 2017; and Professor Xoliswa Mtose, who is in a troubled hot seat at the University of Zululand, currently beset by allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

Bawa said while progress has been slow, more women are occupying positions as deans and deputy vice-chancellors. “This will allow the creation of a wider pipeline of candidates for vice-chancellor positions,” he said.

De la Rey agreed that while participation rates of women have increased significantly at all education levels, the numbers of women at the helm of universities continues to lag. “This imbalance occurs despite significant increases in women’s participation in formal employment and higher education,” she said.

While gender equity policies are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient to ensure gender parity. Part of the issue, according to De la Rey, is that leadership characteristics are associated with masculinity, often to the disadvantage of female candidates.


De la Rey said many senior women academics, deans and deputy vice-chancellors indicated that they would not want vice-chancellor roles as they are too managerial, administrative and political. “Those women who apply for management and leadership positions are often said to be ‘brave enough to apply’. The competitive and sometimes public selection processes can be a disincentive for women since being openly competitive and ambitious are not seen as flattering feminine characteristics,” she said.

“After nine years in my role, I feel that I have achieved what I set out to do at the University of Pretoria. We have been able to build on an already strong foundation for academic excellence, as demonstrated by improved international rankings, as well as further transformation and make the university more representative of South Africa’s broader demographic. I believe the time is right for me to take on a new leadership challenge.

“While we have made some progress with regards to women in leadership positions – more than half of our professional staff are made up of women – we need to continue with these efforts to ensure women take up their rightful position in academia,” she said.

Government interventions

Seputu Mampane, branch co-ordinator at the Department of Higher Education and Training, said universities are responsible for the recruitment of staff, including academics and leadership and management staff. However, she said the department has a number of programmes under way to support the transformation of the higher education sector.

One of the measures undertaken by the department is the University Capacity Development Programme which supports the recruitment of new academics in ways that transform the academic workforce and enable high quality teaching and research at universities; among other initiatives aimed at ensuring the higher education terrain is more diverse.

The New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) enables universities to recruit new academics into permanent posts from the outset, and support them towards high-level performance through a six-year development programme, of which 80% of the recruits must be black or women academics.

The nGAP started in 2015, with 99 posts filled in 2015. Fifty-four of these were filled by females. In 2016, 95 posts were filled, of which 51 were taken up by women. To date, approximately ZAR880 million (US$66 million) has been invested in nGAP.