Women still ‘grossly’ under-represented as academic leaders

Despite making great strides in various spheres of socio-economic life, African women remain grossly under-represented in academic leadership positions. Less than three out of every 100 universities are led by women vice-chancellors.

This is the situation across all regions of the continent. Of the 97 top-ranked universities, 21% have women chancellors, 14% vice-chancellors, and 26% women registrars.

The under-representation persists at the general academic staff level too, where fewer than a quarter of the personnel are women, perhaps explaining the negligible number of women at the apex of the universities.

The imbalance poses a “significant challenge” that hinders the ability of women to assume critical decision-making roles, said Dr Jack Abebe, a regional knowledge management and research specialist for UN Women East and Southern African region.

Women representation resembles a pyramid

The marginalisation has not spared Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa, where fewer than 25% of universities are headed by women, he said, citing a study by the US-based Brookings Institution. The report compares women’s representation in academic leadership to a pyramid in which very few women exist at the top and in key leadership positions.

“For example, as of 2022, at the national level, only six out of the 26 higher education institutions in South Africa – a country that houses many of Africa’s top universities, were led by women; and, in Ghana, only 8% of professors at public universities were women,” Abebe said.

Challenges facing female leaders in academia in Africa can be attributed to cultural, societal, individual and institutional factors, among others, he told a recent webinar on networking and empowerment of female university student leaders in Eastern and Southern Africa. UN Women and the Forum for African Women Vice-Chancellors (FAWoVC-UN Women) hosted the online seminar.

These include gender-based biases and stereotypes, lack of mentorship opportunities and role models and limited access to resources and funding. Implicit biases in recruitment and promotion processes and a lack of institutional support are also to blame.

Numerous historical obstacles

Poor succession planning and support networks, the gender pay gap, limited visibility and low representation of women in decision-making bodies were also mentioned as reasons for the representation problem.

Overall, women in Africa have faced numerous historical obstacles and biases that hinder their access to education and professional opportunities, Abebe said.

Women representation, particularly in leadership, has been highlighted as integral to the achievement of gender equality in higher learning institutions in Africa, according to the Brookings Foresight Africa 2022 report.

“Although significant advances in the development of policy initiatives have been made to ensure equal representation in various sectors, there are still unequal systems and oppressive practices in higher education which perpetuate skewed patterns of representation in leadership, especially in the context of Africa,” according to the report.

Women’s unique roles not accommodated

The report said that, while institutional efforts to increase the representation of women in academia are growing across the region, they tend to focus on “increasing female enrolment in undergraduate studies rather than the hiring and retention of women in senior leadership positions”. The few women currently pushing academic frontiers through their research and leadership are often held to “higher standards, [are] constantly scrutinised, barely recognised, receive lower pay and poorer evaluations, and are recommended less compared to their male counterparts”.

The report further states: “Women are also excluded from the gendered informal decision-making process, which usually occurs through informal networks. The demanding role of women in the caregiving economy and in childrearing, coupled with excessive administrative burdens, further delays career progression.”

Moreover, female faculty and students face sexual harassment, or “at the very least, are too often judged by their physical appearance rather than their intellectual capabilities, which further dissuades them from staying in academia”.

Commitment to policies needed

African universities must, therefore, first commit, develop, popularise, and be intentional about institutional inclusive gender policies such as affirmative action, create adaptable work environments accommodating childcare, and craft sexual harassment policies to advance female representation.

“Policies to make the environment safer and more open to opportunities must start even before young, academically minded women enter the labour market,” the report recommended.

“Since the minimum requirement for most senior academic positions is a PhD, leaders must consider strategies to first increase the quantity and quality of women in post-graduate studies in Africa and initiatives such as funding and research collaboration opportunities,” Dr Rebecca Afua Klege, director of research at the Henry J Austin Health Centre and a research fellow in the Environmental Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, wrote in Chapter 3 of the report.

The report further explains that female students are more likely to enrol for graduate studies when they encounter successful women role models which would enable them to rise to positions of power in universities, and this called for strategies for advancing women’s capacity to run doctoral programmes.

“Given that representation matters, mentorship programmes tailored for junior academic ranks and led by senior female faculty offer a tremendous motivational tool in the quest to attract more women. In addition, identifying and building alliances with both women and men who are passionate about the advancement of women is another way to avoid isolation and combat hostility.”

Issues can be mitigated

According to the study, women should be offered equal pay, including all fringe benefits, to prevent them from pursuing better-paying jobs outside of academia.

The obstacles to the rise of women to positions of authority can be mitigated by, among other measures, promoting gender equality policies, and universities developing and implementing gender-inclusive policies that address the under-representation, according to Abebe.

Developing leadership and mentorship programmes and establishing development programmes that provide them with requisite skills, knowledge and networks for career advancement would also help. Equally important are family-friendly policies such as flexible work arrangements, parental leave programmes, and supportive childcare mechanisms that alleviate the work-life balance challenges which women academics usually face.

Partnership to promote equality

In an effort to practically remedy the situation, FAWoVC-UN Women signed a memorandum of understanding in May 2023. The objective includes sharing analysis and information for identifying complementary programmes to promote gender equality in universities, said Professor Teresa Akenga of Kenya’s University of Eldoret, the forum’s chairperson. Akenga was vice-chancellor of the university for 10 years.

The partnership will identify policy approaches in areas of gender equality and empowerment to promote gender and equality policies in higher education institutions in the East and Southern Africa Region. In addition, it will work to eliminate violence against women (including students) in higher education institutions.

The partnership further aims to serve as an effective voice “nationally, regionally and internationally in higher education institutions by hosting symposiums, redesigning leadership modules, mentorship and training sessions for women leaders and upcoming leaders,” she said in a speech read by Professor Mabel Imbuga, former vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

The women vice-chancellor’s body was working to assert its place as the right platform for advancing the agenda of women in academia and will place the same at the core of its activities, she added. The organisation will be holding its sixth symposium and annual general meeting in Cameroon at the end of October 2023, where important matters on female leadership in universities will be discussed.