31 August 2021

Gender inequality remains persistent in all aspects of the education systems, workplace policies, processes and practices. Although women are gradually breaking out of their traditional to non-traditional and previously male-oriented careers, the absence of women in high and strategic positions in HEIs is a major concern.  

Much research show that the majority of female academics are concentrated in lower levels of employment and in traditionally female fields such as education, social sciences and health. There are multi-dimensional barriers experienced by female academics as they negotiate upward mobility within the academic fraternity. Some of the challenges faced by female academics in HEIs include: 

1. Gender stereotypes and glass ceilings 
Cultural values, gender stereotypes and bias continue have a huge bearing on women’s challenges at the workplace. The most commonly cited is the association of leadership and management with maleness. Empirical studies, especially in South Africa, note the widely held perception of ‘think leadership think male’ which continues to disadvantage women at the workplace, including HEIs.

These have created bias against women selection or promotion to senior executive positions and the professoriate. Moreover, such a view appears to be stronger among black than white male South Africans.  In the same vein, the initial appointment of women to lower classification levels puts them at a structural disadvantage by increasing the time needed to ascend academic ladders and by reducing their access to influential committees and senior researchers with whom they might network and collaborate. 

2. Masculine organisational culture and women’s lack of self-confidence
One of the greatest obstacles to women advancement in Higher Education Institutions is lack of self-esteem and confidence. Some women seem to have less self-belief in their own capabilities than men do. The lack of self-esteem and confidence may be attributed to a patriarchal nature of the society and institutions that promotes male dominance and authority.

HEIs as institutions that are embedded in the larger societies reflect such bias. Women find it difficult to function optimally in an environment that alienates them. To this effect women are faced with the challenge of lack of leadership confidence. Women experience lower leadership confidence or leadership self-efficacy than men, despite having similar education and work experience with their male colleagues. This seems to pose an obstacle to their career advancement.  Women who tend to make it in higher leadership positions are disliked as well as being labelled unfeminine by both men and women.

3. The promotion criteria 
Research demonstrated that women are located in lower positions due to the fact that they lack institutional support, their gender needs and interests are disregarded when it comes to decisions made on promotion. For this reason most women find it difficult to meet the criteria for promotion in order to propel their career mobility. This has been attributed to the patriarchal organisational culture embedded in institutional policies. The situation is also reflected in the promotion criteria.  

Most institutions have promotional policies that spell out the criteria for promotion staff members, however, these appear to be gender-neutral and offer equal opportunities despite the disadvantages women are faced with regards to their career mobility.  Equity measures such as Affirmative Action, which have been developed to level the playing field, are not necessarily considered.

Women are entering the academia in greater numbers, however, their promotion occurs at a much slower in comparison to men. To this effect women are clustered at the lower ranks of the academic positions. The gender gap widen from the senior lecturer to the full professoriate levels. Research and publication are considered to be key criterion to the promotion to those levels.

Promotion decisions are based mainly on research productivity and publications to which men are often the ‘gate-keepers’. In addition, men usually have more access to research and publishing networks and also receive spousal support which assists them to focus on their research and subsequently to get better promotional prospects than women.  In addition, the long-standing gendered division of academic labour that sees women more concentrated in teaching activities while men are focussing on doing research.

Research shows that most of those women who happen to succeed to higher positions, experience more constraints and less support than when they held lower-level positions resulting in both exhaustion and still feeling stuck. 

4. Masculine oriented organisational culture and work-family conflict
The research reveals that universities continue to be rigidly masculine oriented spaces. Women struggle to thrive within such environment.  Women are overburdened with roles that are mainly pertaining to family and childcare which seem to hold them back realising the potential at work especially in HEIs.  

Literature shows that to be competent one has to be able to focus and meet all demands of being an ‘ideal academic’, the ability to do research and writing for publications, teach and supervise research students, and be involved in community outreach. This way femininity is undesired on the basis that women have other responsibilities outside the workplace which compete with their paid work, therefore making it difficult for them to immerse themselves in their work. Against this backdrop women are said to lack competency. This is said to be the attributing factor that binds women to lower positions.  

Universities as advocates of social justice are expected to lead gender transformation. However, universities reflect the larger societal culture within which they are embedded. The patriarchal and masculine culture within these institutions, consciously or unconsciously, shapes the challenges women experience in higher education institutions. The following solutions are recommended to correct gender imbalances and unequal gender relations.

Development of a Gender Policy: The University needs to develop a gender policy that would provide a framework to institutionalize or mainstream gender in all areas of the functioning and systems of the University. This includes the overhaul and reorientation of all policies, programmes, projects, processes, procedures and practices, to incorporate gender starting from the planning stage of these. Among others, policies such as staff development, mentoring, research and publication and HR policies such as recruitment and selection policies should be among those within which gender should be incorporated.

Family-friendly Environment: The responsibility lies on the institution to create environment and policies that are supportive of women’s attempts to combine career and family. Institutions should address the needs of those with childcare and other family responsibilities, especially female staff members who are mothers.

To this effect, adequate family-friendly policies should be adopted and those which are already in place such as the Employment Equity Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act would need to be strengthened to respond to the real needs of women. HEIs and the workplace in general should introduce child-care facilities such as, a nursery, a crèche and breastfeeding rooms (or enhance where there are already such facilities). 

Easing of the Promotion Criteria for female academics: The institution should consider differentiating the promotion criteria between men and women, women should be given special treatment considering the fact that they have other responsibilities which most men do not necessarily have. The University should be able to offer extra support female academics to attain PhDs as this will assist increase their chances of being promoted.

Relief from excessive teaching Load: Female lecturers should be relieved from excessive teaching loads to give them room for research and publications as a way to assist them to realise career mobility.

Extra support in Research: There should be extra support when it comes to women, capacity building and role models should be made available to support women to be involved more in research and encourage or motivate them in doing PhDs. Scholarships should be available and also take into consideration that women have needs. 

Women in LeadershipWomen in leadership should be seen to be doing things differently:  promoting the culture of inclusion, represent the needs of other women; mentor those in lower position, mobilize collective action toward a common good, challenge established patriarchal and hierarchal styles of leadership, redefine power relations and take risks of advancing the transformation and reconstruction agendas. 

@ Picture Supplied.