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Men call the shots in higher education throughout Africa

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Picture: Sophia Stander

By Edwin Naidu

A day before the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, African education experts spoke about the critical challenge of keeping girls in the sciences and getting more women into academia.

Annually over the next two weeks, one is implored to empower and uplift girls and women to bring about a more equitable world. Yet in higher education, throughout Africa, men still call the shots.

The global campaign kicks off annually on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until Dec. 10, Human Rights Day. That this message comes ceaselessly, year in and year out, suggests that the campaign has failed. Men in power don’t seem to want to change the narrative. Women are making waves as countries' leaders in technology, education, business and society. But it is not enough and seems far too contrived.

In the tertiary sector, out of 26 vice-chancellors in South Africa, seven are women. In Kenya, six out of 29 public universities are led by women. Six of Nigeria’s 200 public and private universities have women heads. It is the same here on the continent. The Forum for Women Vice-Chancellors in Africa (FAWE) estimates that 40 out of 1 500 universities on the continent are led by women. They should make a louder noise about their rise to the top. But along with FAWE, they seem preoccupied with hosting fundraising dinners to educate girls for a profession that shuts the door on them.

Despite their silence and the lip service of men in Africa, patriarchy reigns on the continent.

Typically, one would hear men speak up when they find their limp voices at horrible acts of violence against women. But some cannot be taken seriously, given the claims about how they treat women privately. Of course, it is more than the narrative of that one leader’s shenanigans in South Africa which are well-document and do not need repeating. But it’s worth noting that he had strong support from women when in court over rape allegations against his comrade’s daughter half his age. Stand by your man is not just a country and western classic by Tammy Wynette; it is sadly the standard by which some hold their loved ones when they’ve been despicable.

According to a report from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), a crisis of care hinders social development and progress toward gender equality. The global economy is characterised by entrenched patriarchal norms, a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work shouldered by women and communities, and an undervaluation of care in the market.

During the webinar, this lack of care was evidenced when the toxicity of higher education emerged with claims of women subject to bullying, constant workplace harassment, and instances of being asked for sex in exchange for jobs.

On Thursday, the renowned scientist and former first woman President of Mauritius, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, threw down the gauntlet at the Women in Academia webinar: “How do we get more women in academia? How do we get more women entrepreneurs? How do we get women in the sciences? I mean, why am I sitting here if we are going to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need to get more women involved. ”

The webinar was hosted by Higher Education Resources – South Africa (HERS-SA), Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA), a consortium of technology-focused universities and institutions, and Higher Education Media, a fledgling start-up. Facilitated by THENSA chief executive Dr Anshu Padayachee, the panel featured the enigmatic vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, bold head of HERS-SA Brightness Mangolothi and passionate Ms Nomasonto Mazibuko, the acting chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality.

“The questions we raise today have been raised many times before. But as we share and raise awareness about the challenges and obstacles women face in higher education leadership, we need to do more. We need to advance practical solutions to resolve this burning and ongoing discrimination and perceptions about women in the higher education sector,” said Padayachee, a former deputy vice-chancellor and committed educationist.

Gurib-Fakim said it was time to create role models in this field to ring out the best in women entrepreneurs. “We need champions to showcase that it can be done. The other thing is that I see how we start a career in science. And I think that’s one very, very simple. I was lucky to have had teachers who stimulated the effect in me of the virus of science. So we need to look at our school curriculum. We need to see whether it is still fit for purpose, whether it is promoting the girl child, and whether it is stimulating her with lateral thinking that she needs to be able to stay in the sciences.”

Looking at women’s progress through the system as part of her doctoral studies, Mangolothi said sexual harassment is rife in the higher education system in South Africa. “Although we only see students being harassed, academics are also harassed, and support staff are harassed when they apply for positions. There are cases where you find that people when they were applying for a leadership position, were asked to exchange sex for them to get a position, and those are the realities that we do not openly talk about,” she said.

Throwing it forward in terms of solutions, Mangolothi said the time for talking was over; action was required to address gender inequalities. HERS-SA began coaching women in 2020 as a service to women in leadership, some across the continent. One of the participants in the webinar, an academic from Nigeria, was one of 65 recipients of the mentorship programme.

She said part of the solution would be to encourage women by acknowledging them by establishing a leadership awards recognition initiative next year.

Mangolothi described UCT as one of the institutions with a strong presence of Black African women in leadership positions as chancellor, vice-chancellor, chair of the council, and all deputy vice-chancellors. “It's not just being women; it’s all being black women. The bottom line is that I came into office on 1 July 2018) as a vice-chancellor with an agenda for transformation,” said Phakeng.

Mazibuko said the commission was looking forward to recommendations from the webinar to guide them in their work. “What is important for me is to say you can’t have higher education without basic education. I always want us to start from the cradle because if we don’t nurture people to let them go up, they will never go up. I would specifically say let’s not leave disabled people behind. We want to be included in whatever, and we strive very hard for us as individuals.”

She agreed with Padayachee about not working in silos. “Let’s unite as women and as family members, and not leave our communities behind and focus on educating them from a young age,” she said.

But the UN research report says there must be pathways toward a new eco-social contract based on a vision of justice, equality and sustainability. To do this, what’s required is a new development model with three key pillars: alternative economic approaches that centre environmental and social justice and rebalance state–market–society–nature relations; transformative social policies based on a fair fiscal compact; and reimagined multilateralism and solidarities.

A new eco-social contract must recognize that previous social contracts have been built upon unequal gender arrangements. But will the men who call the shots get the message?

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.