In what could be hailed as a ground-breaking development, Wits University yesterday launched a programme to transform the top echelons of the higher education institutions to include more women leaders.
Currently, the gender and racial profile of leadership at the country’s 26 universities is skewed in favour of men. There are only four female vice-chancellors: Professor Sibongile Muthwa from Nelson Mandela University, Professor Thoko Mayekiso from the University of Mpumalanga, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from the University of Cape Town and the University of Zuluand’s Professor Xoliswa Mtose.
Called the Female Academic Leaders Fellowship (FALF), the initiative is the brainchild of the Wits Chancellor and leading businesswoman Dr Judy Dlamini. The fellowship targets African and coloured women in academia who are under-represented in high structures of knowledge production and leadership.
Dlamini said the launch of the FALF was inspired by the disappointing national statistics about the proportion of women graduates in South Africa. Said Dlamini: “The proportion of women graduates, in South Africa, has increased over the past 20 years, making up 60% of graduates at junior and honours level; at Masters level the proportion has increased to 44.6% and at Doctorate level to 58.2% enrolment.”
But Dlamini said notwithstanding these positive changes, women are still under-represented within institutions of higher learning with African and coloured women hardly featuring in top leadership positions.
Added Dlamini: “Our research showed that it is not all women that are missing from leadership positions. White and Indian women are doing better than their national demographic proportion. However, South African-African and coloured women do not have a seat at the table yet.”
At a webinar hosted late last year by Higher Education Resource Services and Universities South Africa, it was revealed that since 2015 of 20 vacancies for vice-chancellors only four women filled those positions.
A recent report commissioned by the department of higher education, science and innovation on the recruitment, retention and progression of black academics at South African universities, found that numbers of black and female academics at universities were growing at a snail’s pace.
It further found that white females are overrepresented at 25.3% of the academic staff, compared to their 4.5% slice of the general population. In comparison, black women academics constitute a paltry 16.1%.
Dlamini said women need to be supported to occupy leadership positions in academia.
According to Wits, the first FALF cohort consists of 30 black and coloured women from a range of disciplines and faculties. The fellowship has received about 500 000 in funding from various donors but they hope to raise additional funds from other sources to fulfil its objectives.
Dr Bernadette Johnson, director of the transformation and employment equity office at Wits, welcome the launch of the fellowship. She said over the past 15 years they invested millions into building the talent pipeline, adding that the FALF aims to accelerate the progression of women from senior lecturer to associate to professor.
Said Johnson: “This progression is a national challenge as well as the leadership challenge. To get more women into leadership will be phenomenal; and to do it in a way that enables women to get exposure to leadership training programmes as they build their academic career simultaneously means that you shorten the length of the pipeline to executive leadership.”