Nelson Mandela University vice-chancellor Prof. Sibongile Muthwa
Nelson Mandela University vice-chancellor Prof. Sibongile Muthwa

Long walk to gender equality in African university leadership

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Oct 5, 2021

Share this article:

Women cannot break through the glass ceiling in ivory towers of learning where the top jobs are still held in a vice-like grip by men at universities throughout South Africa – and on the African continent.

Nelson Mandela University vice-chancellor Prof. Sibongile Muthwa

South Africa has only six women in the vice-chancellor's hot seat.

They are Professor Thoko Mayekiso at the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Sibongile Muthwa at Nelson Mandela University, Professor Rushiella Songca at Walter Sisulu University, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng of UCT, Professor Puleng LenkaBula at Unisa, and, Professor Xoliswa Mtose of the University of Zululand.

In Kenya, out of 29 public universities, only six are led by women.

According to Chioma Blaise Chikere, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Science at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria – the most populous country in Africa – the statistics concerning women varsity heads in her country are shocking and reflect a “very unsettling truth”.

UCT vice-chancellor Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng. Photo: Tracey Adams/African News Agency/ANA

“I found six female vice-chancellors currently sitting in that position, with four in public universities and two in private universities.

“There's a shortage of women vice-chancellors in this part of the globe, with nearly 200 public and private universities.

“Unfortunately, the statistics are startling,” she said.

It does not get any better throughout Africa.

According to Professor Mabel Imbuga, the chairperson of the Forum for Women Vice-Chancellors in Africa, alarmingly, out of 1 500 universities on the continent, only 40 are headed by women.

But, she said several mechanisms for strengthening women's leadership in higher education requiring adequate resources were underway to tackle the anomalies.

Ahead of its major conference on the future of higher education this week, the Chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf), Professor Sibongile Muthwa, told The Sunday Independent that the tertiary sector's performance on gender has been poor.

“In terms of making sure that we walk the talk, in respect of the leadership of the university, at least in terms of gender, I would argue that in terms of the racial composition of the leadership, at least the visible leadership of universities, it is quite diverse.

“But in terms of gender transformation, there is a lot of work that universities must do,’ Muthwa said.

She revealed that the Department of Higher Education and Training, Department of Science and Innovation, as well as the National Research Foundation, have worked collectively to provide grants and support to train the different tiers of university managers from junior entry-level, academics, mid-level, academics and management, and management, as well as the senior level to create a pool.

“But we need to pay attention to what has held back gender equality as far as the leadership of the university sector is concerned. It is not acceptable,’ Muthwa said.

She said the tertiary sector has to build a new tier of leaders that reflect the country's diversity because society is keenly watching events as people are talking about an engaged university.

“These are people that are talking about the social justice project.

“These people are talking about zero tolerance to gender-based violence, and these people are talking about the equalisation of the status of men and women in the sector.

“But we still have six women vice-chancellors and 20 male vice-chancellors.

“Each of us leading universities at the moment, from council to organisations, such as USAf, we have to do a lot of soul searching to make sure that over the next few years, there is more representation of women and people of colour in the higher echelons of universities,” Muthwa said.

UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said as a black woman heading a tertiary institution, the demands were enormous.

“If you’re a black woman, it’s even worse because you, you’re not just dealing with patriarchy, you’re dealing with racism as well,” she said.

She likened the role of a vice-chancellor to that of walking the tightrope between the boardroom and the picket line.

“Everyone is happy when we get appointed; everyone was delighted because the picket line sees me as one of them, and of course I am.

“But the boardroom also sees me as one of them as an AB1-rated scientist.

“Whenever you make a decision, everyone wants you to carry their mandate and deliver on what they want, even when those demands clash or they're not consistent.

“At any one time, you make a decision, you make somebody upset,” she said.

Phakeng said the scrutiny of women in the role was intense.

“People watch what I wear, pick on the size of my earrings, people critique my hair, they wonder why I have an afro, is it a political statement?

“No man gets criticised for the colour of the suit he wears.

“When you agree to everything, of course, they will criticise you for being weak when you're strong and holding the line.

“When you speak passionately as I do, then you're a bully,” she said.

Javu Baloyi, the spokesperson for the Commission on Gender Equality, said there are many reasons why the gender gap remains at places of higher learning.

“South Africa is a patriarchal society, and institutions of higher learnings were no exception to that phenomenon.

“Institutions of higher learning often times have male-dominated Councils and Senates and Student Representative Councils (SRCs), and Unions could do little to sway the decision of these powerful bodies.

“The environment that these universities were and to some extent some of them are not conducive for women vice-chancellors to have free reign,” he said.

Baloyi said the constant attacks on women vice-chancellors somewhat have its genesis in women not wanting to take these positions.

“Not that women are not capable but the extent to which the are expected to succeed outweigh everything,” he said.

Former president of Mauritius and renowned scientist Ameena Gurib Fakim told The Sunday Independent that despite the joyous noise about women empowerment, the appointment of women in critical positions remains an issue, be it in academia, politics, business, etc.

“When we look at the root cause of the problem, we see only one word to describe it - misogyny.

“Women are not meant to upset the status quo, and her appointment will be made through many other lenses besides gender – class, ethnicity, tribe, political affinities, etc.”

Fakim said these criteria often colour the exercise because, in the academic world, academic excellence and management skills should be the only guiding factors.

“Often women get appointed to sort out the mess because if she is successful, the menfolk will get the benefits, and if she does not succeed, well it is easy to make her carry the blame,” she said.

Chairperson of the Council on Higher Education, Prof Themba Mosia, said advancing women in leadership, especially in higher education, has remained a challenge for a while.

“I still think that much can still be done to correct the situation.

“But the manner in which we have organised needs to undergo fundamental change.”

Most explained how women appeared to have been marginalised during lobbying processes of the different groupings on campuses which seemed to give male candidates a head-start.

Therefore, he said changing the status quo required a deliberate, bold approach, in which gender should form a vital part of the criteria.

UCT Council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama said the culture of an institution was first and foremost a factor in why institutions have been slow to buck the trend on appointing women.

Ngonyama told me that the culture of universities and institutions, in general, was designed around masculinity, so things like organisational preferences were created by men, according to their likes and dislikes, which was exclusionary to women.

“As a result, we have leadership that is not inclusive. We have values in organisations that are not inclusive of women.

“Women often feel a sense of isolation, and sometimes in a room full of people, it will be full of men, and you'd feel very isolated.”

Another reason why varsities were slow to buck the trend, said Ngonyama was a long-standing challenge.

“We still have an age-old culture of boys clubs that keeps women out of top-ranking positions.”

Decisions and engagements often happen outside of formal meetings in places like golf courses, for example.

There was always unconscious bias women had to deal with.

“So, what can we do to resolve this problem.

“First and foremost, even before we resolve the problem.

“We do need a society that is fair and just.

“And we can only achieve that society if we include women in all decision-making,” she said.

Director of Higher Education Resources-South Africa (HERS-SA), Brightness Mangolothi, said in South Africa, the doors of ivory towers remain (white) male lead in South Africa, and change could take place when there's a critical mass of women in senior leadership.

HERS-SA has been instrumental in contributing to the creation of a critical mass.

Over and above the programmes aimed at advancing women leaders in 2020, we launched coaching support and, in 2021, the mentorship programme.

These interventions are creating a shift needed in South African higher education.

“Policies alone are not sufficient to transform universities, hence a need for a governance system to be re-examined because, as is, the transformation will remain an ideal,” she said, articulating the ongoing challenge for women in higher education in South Africa and on the continent.

Share this article: