Equal­ity isn’t just lip ser­vice

CityPress - - Careers & Voices - Rus­sel Bot­man This is an edited ad­dress the late Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity rec­tor and vice- chan­cel­lor Pro­fes­sor Rus­sel Bot­man de­liv­ered at an In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day con­fer­ence in Scot­land in March. Bot­man died in his sleep in June

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.

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