Women student leaders plead for mentorship opportunities

Women university student union leaders in Africa are pleading for mentorship opportunities from successful women leaders inside and outside academia, lamenting that they were playing second fiddle to their male colleagues, despite more of them getting elected to lead the unions.

They blame this on the lack of mentorship from more experienced leaders at universities and in communities, the lack of experience, their voices not being heard and suppressed visibility in leadership of student bodies.

They also want to be supported by enrolling in programmes that help grow their self-confidence, allow them to acquire leadership skills and achieve a balance between their academic, social and political lives.

While many universities require that leadership of the bodies include women, the union leaders said during a webinar on networking and empowerment of women university student leaders in Eastern and Southern Africa on 28 July 2023, they feel this is more an issue of ‘tokenism’ than a firm effort to hear their voices and feel their presence.

Women leaders often only tokens

The fact that they operate in a male-dominated sphere also makes it hard for their voices to be heard. It is even more difficult to get their ideas implemented, since they were a minority at apex organs of the student bodies, they lamented.

“Many female student leaders serve in their positions merely to fulfil requirements for gender balance in a classic show of tokenism as opposed to being in the positions because their leadership skills are recognised,” said Olivia Siangilichi, vice-president of the student union at the University of Zambia.

“Many of us also serve in positions where we deputise men who, in many universities, are the presidents of the unions. These men fear being outshone by females, making them ignore our ideas even when they are good,” she said.

In addition, they often had to deal with discouragement from family and the larger community when they want to contest the positions and are subject to damaging rumours about their character that could potentially affect their mental health, a problem they overcome by staying focused.

Lack of institutional support

The rumours induce fear in many would-be and serving women leaders, further denting their confidence – a hurdle that can be surmounted by embracing and appreciating whatever talents and positive attributes they possess, said Monica Etyang, deputy student guild chair at Uganda’s Busitema University.

Even in situations where the girls doubt their own leadership capabilities, they should remain firm in the knowledge that leaders can be made even when they do not have inborn abilities to lead, she added.

Lecturers and university administrators did not make the situation any better, often discouraging women aspirants, said Zawadi John, vice-president of the student union at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical University College in Tanzania. Due to their influence and numbers, men often have the final say on who wins what position.

The discouragement, coupled with the lack of a support system, cause women to develop an inferiority complex, which is made worse by fear of harassment and open discrimination by authorities.

“Young women leaders are often slighted for merely being females, and the decisions they make while in office are usually questioned and doubted,” she disclosed during the webinar hosted by UN Women and the Forum for African Women Vice-Chancellors, or FAWoVC-UN Women.

Society also to blame

Societal biases play havoc with the ability of females to aspire for leadership positions, with many lacking both the motivation and aspiration to vie for positions. This was especially so at public universities where competition for the positions is a bruising affair, observed Maureen Auma, a masters student at the University of Eldoret in Kenya and a former leader at the same institution.

At many Kenyan universities, the only reason women found themselves in leadership positions is because of rules requiring every contestant for the top seat to have a running mate of the opposite gender. At other universities, authorities were imposing leaders after meddling in elections by funding their preferred candidates, noted Meg Muchoki of Kenyatta University.

From her experience, she realised it was important as a women leader to have male allies in running for office, as one would “hardly succeed” in such contests without the support of the man who dominates student politics.

Universities play a crucial role in nurturing women leaders, as they serve as the “breeding grounds” for innovation, knowledge and societal transformation, Dr Maxime Houinato, UN Women’s regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said.

“In a world where women’s potential knows no bounds, it is vital that we create platforms and opportunities for the rising generation of women leaders to thrive and shape the future they envision.”

Inclusive ecosystems needed

Despite overall “remarkable” progress in building women leadership, challenges including gender disparities, stereotypes and institutional barriers that hinder the growth and influence of young women in academic settings persist, he said. For this reason, the UN agency places empowerment at the core of its agenda.

The agenda encompasses providing young women with the knowledge, skills and resources they need to overcome obstacles and excel in their chosen fields, he added, further noting that “empowered women leaders can transform societies, inspire change and break down barriers for the generations that follow”.

Houinato said: “Our partnership with FAWoVC is testament to the commitment of both UN Women and academic institutions in fostering an environment where young women can thrive. Together, we seek to create an inclusive ecosystem that celebrates diversity, embraces equality and fosters an unwavering commitment to gender-responsive leadership, including for student leaders.”

As with other endeavours in life, ascending to student leadership positions is a journey and a process akin to climbing a ladder beset with problems, Dr Sheela Raja Ram, vice-chancellor and managing director at Botho University in Botswana, said.

For example, many potential student leaders in their first year of undergraduate studies imagined that ascending to the positions was a continuation of leadership from high school and, by the second and third years, start feeling strongly about events at college and want to speak about them, she explained.

“Young women initially assume gender does not matter in ascending to student leadership positions, but, as they grow, they realise that it is not gender neutral and that being a woman means more hard work to earn the respect of males, and takes a lot of planning and patience,” Ram added.

It also comes with a lot of “navigating politics” that many young women may not be used to and is made worse by relentless social media pressure that one has to overcome to maintain their mental health, her research among the female university leaders revealed.

Senior women step up

One way of gaining confidence in oneself is by taking part in debates and, as time goes by, this helps move their orientation from “student thinking to leadership thinking”.

While climbing the leadership ladder, students need to understand that the “role of leader meant much more than playing the role of a woman” and required balancing the various roles and expectations. It also called for a display of emotional intelligence, Ram advised.

Overcoming societal stereotypes of a woman leader meant that women must work twice as hard as men to overcome inferiority complexes and succeed in their roles. “Luckily, things are changing, and women are now supporting each other more, with the senior ones supporting the younger ones.”