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Why Are There So Few Women In Senior Academic Positions In SA?

  • 4 min read

Why are there so few women in senior academic positions in South Africa when there are more female graduates then men?

From statistics drawn from various sources, the percentage of women in academic senior/managerial positions in South African universities is significantly small as compared to men. The top academic echelon in most South African universities is dominated by men, despite there being more female graduates than males. What is the cause of this phenomenon?

The root cause can be traced to the socio-cultural constructs of women. Although South Africa’s Constitution promotes equal rights and treatment for all, the socio-cultural constructions of gender promote male dominance and female subordination. These constructs negatively impact decisions and beliefs pertaining to the progression of women academics and they promote institutional sexism.

Institutional sexism is subtly practised in higher educational institutions in South Africa, wherein the ideologies and practices of male academics are being privileged at the expense of female academics. Women, who even manage to make it to top academic positions, often have to deal with sexism from men.

There are instances where women in junior academic positions have been pressured to engage in sexual relations in exchange for job security. Women who experience this are often discouraged to aspire to greater heights. It is evident that the glass ceiling is still in existence in South African universities and women have to contend with it to progress in their academic career.

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that most junior female academics have to cope with both work and study. In order to advance their career, many female academics (particularly black African women) have to wear two caps – that of being a lecturer and a postgraduate student.  They have to contend with lectureship duties and their studies, and for many, it is a struggle.

Some even opt for part-time studying, which in turn hinders their academic progress.

Still on the issue of socio–cultural constructs, South African women like many African women, are expected to take on and execute specific gender roles and responsibilities.

This includes housework and child care, which in turn affords women very little time to engage in research and other activities required for their career progression.

Women’s many responsibilities in their household and community deter them from applying for senior and top academic positions which are based on long intensive hours. Additionally, there is also that small group of women who align with constructs that discourage women being in leadership positions and will, therefore, not make the effort to climb to the top rung of the academic ladder.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation as many female academics now have to work from home and have to cope with child care, family pressures, domestic duties and at times, even gender-based violence. The pandemic has stunted the growth of many academics.  

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How then can these challenges be dealt with and more women empowered to attain top/senior positions in universities?

One way is the creation of child-care facilities in universities for staff members which will afford female academics with young children, more time to focus on their career growth and help them better manage child care. Mentoring and coaching programmes for junior female academics should also be put in place in universities to help women grow in their academic career. For instance, female academics who are in senior positions should be encouraged to mentor or coach junior female academics.

Flexi hours can also be introduced to enable women to better juggle with their academic and other responsibilities.

Taking into account that sexual harassment of female academics can occur, a complaint or support unit should be established to assist women who experience sexual assault within South African universities.

Furthermore, as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is also important to look into ways that women can enhance their academic growth during this period and beyond.

Thus, there is a need to examine current institutional policies in South African universities via a gender lens to make it more supportive for female career progression and promotion. In conclusion, it must be noted that some South African Universities are making an effort in supporting junior female academics to attain senior positions and redress the gender imbalance in top academic positions. 

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