There is little to celebrate for women in academia 30 years after democracy

South Africa has few women in top positions at universities. File Picture

South Africa has few women in top positions at universities. File Picture

Published Apr 28, 2024


Edwin Naidu

Three decades into democracy, the persistent under-representation of women in academic leadership remains a pressing issue, with men still dominating the upper echelons of higher education.

This trend is not unique to South Africa but appears to be a pattern as men continue to grab top university jobs throughout the continent. Out of 1,400 universities in Africa, only 41 are led by women. In South Africa, out of 26 institutions, six are led by women.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa has seen 20 women vice-chancellors. The first was Prof Brenda Gourley at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), followed by the University of Cape Town, where Dr Mamphela Ramphele made history as the first Black female vice-chancellor in 1996.

Some institutions have not had a woman leader since democracy. Yet, gender equality is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal.

Those institutions that have had women vice-chancellors have not replaced them with female vice-chancellors, except the University of Zululand, which had two female vice-chancellors (Prof Rachel Gumbi, 2003 and Prof Fikile Mazibuko, 2010) before the current female vice-chancellor (Prof Xoliswa Mtose, 2016), currently serving her second term. Three of the six current female vice-chancellors are serving their second term, and three are in their first term.

For the first time in 2023, South Africa had seven female vice-chancellors.

Unfortunately, this was short-lived, as the UCT vice-chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, stepped down before the end of her second term. Since democracy, men in South Africa have traditionally outweighed women vice-chancellors by 20 to, on average, six. Looking back at the 14 female vice-chancellors since 1994, only a few served more than two terms, and some have been forced to step down before the end of their terms.

Gender Perspectives on Academic Leadership in African Universities, published in a journal last month by academics Roseanne Diab, Phyllis Kalele, Muthise Bulani, Fred K. Boateng, and Madeleine Mukeshimana, found that women are under-represented in higher education leadership worldwide, with the gender gap in Africa more pronounced.

Statistics for selected African countries confirmed women leaders’ under-representation in the study funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada. Their findings show that only 24% of the top 200 universities in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings have a female leader. Given that the world average for women faculty representation in tertiary education institutions increased from 33.6% in 1990 to 43.2% in 2020, the writers found the gender gap in leadership is striking.

While the percentages differ regionally and depend on the sample of universities included, the general pattern of under-representation of women in senior leadership is upheld. For example, women comprised 29% of Vice-Chancellors (VCs) in the United Kingdom (2018 statistics), having increased from 17% in 2013 to 22% in 2016. In the European Union, 24% (2019 statistics) of all heads of HEIs were women (EC, 2021).

Notably, 22 countries in Europe had no female university leaders. According to an American College President Study, in 2016, 30% of all college presidents in the United States were women. The gender gap in leadership in Africa is even more pronounced.

Their article states that the under-representation of women in academic leadership is a challenge from a social justice perspective and the failure to tap into a population’s total capacity. According to the paper, women occupy lower university ranks, with only a tiny pool reaching the top.

Some studies cite individual factors such as a lack of self-confidence (imposter syndrome), a lack of ambition or women’s reluctance to apply for senior management roles because of sexist cultures in institutions, messy politics, or challenges with work-family balance.

“Thirty years is usually considered a significant milestone. Often, it suggests maturity and certainty about how things should be done. It is, therefore, disheartening that our reflection on how we are doing on the gender question since 1994 illustrates continuing gender disparities,” says Brightness Mangolothi, the executive director of Higher Education Resources-South Africa (HERS-SA), and Grace Khunou is chairperson of the Transformation Management Forum, also driving transformation at Unisa.

On the other hand, Mangolothi and Khunou argue that male vice-chancellors are given opportunities to serve more than two terms, with others holding vice-chancellor roles in more than one university. “Currently, we have 20 male vice-chancellors, a scenario that has been the case since 1994. Given the five-year tenure of vice-chancellors, each university had six chances/terms to appoint a female leader, which equals 156 positions (26 x 6) in the 30 years of democracy. There were more chances if there were 36 universities before the mergers (2005), and some vice-chancellors stepped down before the end of the term. The question is, why has this yet to happen?”

Their research shows that universities were created for men by men, and this is still largely true. For example, their reflection also reveals that the gender disparity at universities is not only at the level of vice-chancellorship but also in several other strategic leadership positions, including who sits in the University Senate, who makes up the professoriate, who holds NRF ratings, PhD holders and who chairs university councils. Men are the key decision-makers in the ivory towers of learning.

“These disparities are especially troubling when we use an intersectional lens – we find that fewer and fewer of these roles are held by Black women who, when they do, are vilified. Although much has changed in higher education to advance transformation, the Ministerial Committee Report shows the lack of women academics, especially Black women, and the continuous toxic space in which they find themselves, which arrests their success.”

When one considers the SDGs, goal eight urges “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, including full employment and decent work with equal pay. But it is not happening for women in academia. SDG 10 calls for reducing inequality within and among countries by “ensuring equal opportunity and reducing inequalities of outcome, including eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action”.

Women continue to be held back in academia and society in general. These goals, with a 2030 deadline, are doomed and remind us that in South Africa, 30 years after democracy, there has been progress. However, women continue to lag behind the incumbents who pay lip service to gender equality – in Africa and worldwide.

© Higher Education Media

Naidu is a communications professional and editor of Inside Education

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL