Universities’ role in the struggle for women’s rights

South Africa is celebrating 20 years of democracy this year, and new legislation to boost gender equity is in the pipeline. But where do we stand in terms of women’s rights, and what is the role of universities in this regard?

Following South Africa’s 1994 elections, there was formal acknowledgment of equality between the sexes, and the recognition of women’s rights in our country. Our new Constitution, passed in 1996, reflects this change. It contains a Bill of Rights with an equality clause, and specifically prohibits unfair discrimination on such grounds as gender, sex and sexual orientation.

This has been followed through in subsequent pieces of legislation, such as the Employment Equity Act of 1998, which added “family responsibility” to the list of grounds on which no “unfair discrimination” may take place. It also introduced affirmative action for “designated groups”, specified to be “black people, women (of all ‘races’) and people with disabilities.”

The latest development came in recent days, when the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill was adopted in the National Assembly. It makes provision for at least 50% of decision-making posts in the country to be filled by women. It also wants to improve women’s access to education, training and skills development. And it seeks to protect women’s reproductive health, and to eliminate discrimination and such harmful practices as gender-based violence.

Improvements to the status of women in South Africa were very important to the country’s first president in the democratic era, the late Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). He is credited with opening the door to women’s empowerment after the 1994 elections. At the first session of South Africa’s new parliament in 1994, Madiba said that “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” He added that women should be “empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society”.

The proportion of women in South Africa’s parliament increased ten-fold from before the 1994 elections to immediately thereafter – 2.7% to 27%. Today, this figure stands at 44%, while 42% of cabinet members are women. This makes South Africa’s legislature and cabinet among the top ten most representative in the world.

However, if one looks at overall employment statistics in South Africa, a different picture emerges. Although women constitute half of the total population, they are poorly represented in management.

According to the Commission for Employment Equity women comprise 43% of the skilled workforce, 42% of those with professional qualifications, 30% of senior managers, and 20% of top management. The trend is clear: The higher up you go on the workplace ladder, the fewer women you find.

What do universities look like? First, it would be fair to say that in general greater emphasis has since 1994 been placed on equal opportunities for women in higher education. There are now more women students, women staff and women managers at universities than before.

According to the Council on Higher Education, South Africa’s number of female students rose from 409 000 in 2006 to 543 000 in 2011. But, then again, the number of male students also went up. What about university staff and senior management? We see more or less the same thing. Yes, there are more women, but, there are also more men, so the ratio stays constant. But it is at the upper echelons where it becomes very noticeable that men are much better represented than women.

What about elsewhere on our continent? Well, according to HERS-SA, the South African chapter of the US-based Higher Education Resource Services, the statistics “show a similar pattern in other parts of Africa, including Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe”. The organisation states that “the highest proportion of women are in the lowest academic positions and the lowest occupational levels in support departments”.

This picture is reflected around the world. In the US, women make up 57% of all college students but only 26% of full professors, 23% of university presidents and 14% of presidencies at the doctoral degree-granting institutions.

At the risk of stating the obvious, why is the underrepresentation of women – especially in leadership – a problem? Two major reasons – it is unfair, and it is an underutilisation of the total capacity and abilities of humankind. The former is intolerable, and the latter is scarcely something that we can afford in light of the need for accelerated human development everywhere.

In 2009, the White House Project said that the gravity of empowering women to take on leadership roles within institutions of higher education goes beyond mere numbers. The organisation argued that the “presence – or absence – of female academic leaders can have far-reaching influences not only on the institutions themselves, but … on the scope of research and knowledge that affects us all.”

Humankind is a single species, inhabiting this one planet of ours. The big challenges that we face at this point in our history – managing global warming and climate change, achieving greater socioeconomic equality, reducing armed conflict, and so forth –are complex and demanding enough on their own. We cannot afford to handicap ourselves by not using all our human resources to the full.

Higher education is a very important site of contestation for the advancement of women – in various ways related to the different functions of the university.

The university firstly has a pedagogical role, shaping young people at a crucial stage of their lives. They have to be guided to think critically and to re-examine existing practices in relation to the position of women in society.

In the second place the university has an important role in generating new knowledge. This, in turn, has an influence on government policy at various levels.

Lastly, universities are situated in society and should therefore engage with communities in meaningful ways. This is where higher-education institutions should also exert an influence in terms of the status of women in society.

Stellenbosch University last year adopted a new vision statement. One of our main aims is to become more inclusive. Our institutional culture should be welcoming and empowering to all staff and students regardless of gender or sex or sexual orientation.

We should invest in the empowerment of all people through education. But we should also carefully manage the process thereafter so that women’s advancement is not left to chance, but is positively boosted at all levels by us becoming more inclusive.

  • This article is an edited version of my speech at the International Women’s Day Conference of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland on 7 March 2014.
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