Equality isn’t just lip service
Women make up 51.3% of our population, yet 20 years after the dawn of democracy in South Africa, they are still seriously under-represented at the upper levels of society – including at our universities.
Only 18.5% of professors and 29.8% of associate professors in our country are women and only four of our 25 public universities have female vice-chancellors – that is just 16%.
At the risk of stating the obvious, why is this a problem?
Well, not only is it unfair, it is also an underutilisation of the total capabilities of humankind. The former is intolerable and the latter is something that we cannot afford in light of the need for accelerated human development everywhere.
In 2009, NGO the White House Project in the US said that the gravity of empowering women to take on leadership roles in institutions of higher education went beyond mere numbers. It said the “presence – or absence – of female academic leaders can have farreaching influences not only on the institutions themselves, but ... on the scope of research and knowledge that affects us all”.
The challenges that we face at this point in the history of humankind – managing global warming and climate change, achieving greater socioeconomic equality, reducing armed conflict – are complex and demanding. We cannot afford to handicap ourselves by not using all our human resources to the fullest.
To be fair, since 1994, greater emphasis has been placed on equal opportunities for women in higher education in South Africa. There are now more female students, staff and managers at universities than before.
According to the Council on Higher Education, the number of South Africa’s female students rose from 409 000 in 2006 to 543 000 in 2011.
But the number of male students also went up, with the ratio staying more or less the same.
And what about university staff and senior management?
We see the same thing. Yes, there are more women, but there are also more men, so the ratio again remains constant.
In this regard, universities seem to reflect the general trend elsewhere in our society.
According to the Commission for Employment Equity, women comprise 43% of the skilled workforce, 42% have professional qualifications, 30% are senior managers and 20% are top management. The trend is clear. The higher up you go in the workplace, the fewer women you find.
Universities should be setting an example. Higher education is a very important site of contestation for the advancement of women – in various ways related to the different functions of higher education.
Firstly, the university has a pedagogical role, shaping young people at a crucial stage of their lives. They have to be guided to think critically and re-examine existing practices in relation to the position of women in society.
Secondly, the university has an important role to play in generating new knowledge. This, in turn, has an influence on government and public policy at various levels.
Lastly, universities are situated in society and should therefore engage with communities in more meaningful ways.
This is where higher education institutions should also exert an influence in terms of the status of women in society.
Improving the status of women in South Africa was very important to the country’s first president in the democratic era, the late Nelson Mandela.
He is credited with “opening ... the door to women’s empowerment” after the 1994 elections.
In the first session of South Africa’s new Parliament in 1994, Madiba said “freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”. He said women should be “empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society”.
Sadly, 20 years down the line, we have not made enough progress in this regard. That is why we should invest in the empowerment of all children through education.
We should also carefully manage the process thereafter so that women’s advancement is not left to chance, but is boosted at all levels.