Why is HERS-SA important to higher education?
South Africa’s gender equality legislative policies are good, but we are failing dismally at implementing them. In 2018, Statistics South Africa found that men “were more likely to be in paid employment than women, regardless of race”, hold higher paying jobs, and positions at managerial level. The higher education (HE) environment is a reflection of what is happening in South African society.
In 2013, 72 500 women were employed at the 26 public universities in our country. That’s 53% of the workforce at our universities. It seems high, but 2016 HEMIS figures show that only 43% of women, both academic and support staff, are in senior management positions. Women academics make up 27.5% of the 2 218 professors employed at our institutions and 39.5% of the 2 131 associate professors at our universities. Of the 4 890 senior lecturer posts at our institutions, 45.1% are held by women. 53.3% of the 8 498 lecturer positions and 56.6% of the 1 035 junior lecturer positions are held by women.
If we look at Stellenbosch University, inequality is still evident right at the top with nine women serving on the institution’s council of 30 members and 102 women on a Senate comprised of 342 members. One woman serves on the Rectorate. Of the 1 337 academic staff in permanent and fixed-term contracts at SU, 697 are male and 640 female. Only eight of those 640 women are in senior management positions with men occupying 28 positions at that level. Women make up the majority (2 061) of the 3 300 support staff in permanent and fixed-term positions, but only one woman serves at top management level and 14 at senior management level. I am also not surprised to find that the majority (1 230) of women support staff are in skilled, academic and junior management positions. On top of this, the racial profile of women in senior and mid-management positions is just as worrisome.
With few women at top management level, our institutions remain patriarchal environments where the particular challenges that women face and their specific needs are ignored. Career progression for women is further delayed by factors such as enabling cultures geared towards the advancement of males, perceptions within society that men are better leaders, and the low number of women who apply for senior and top management positions because of a workplace culture that prides itself on long, intensive workdays that may impact on women’s other responsibilities. Women at senior and top management level often have to deal with hostility and salary gaps between men and women for doing the same work.
HERS-SA is one of the only organisations in South Africa with a proven track record in developing women in HE at a national level and advocating for the leadership development of women. So we have an important role to play to help institutions achieve gender equality in the current climate.
What do you hope to achieve as the new Chair of HERS-SA?
I represent one cog in the HERS-SA machine, which also include our Director, Brightness Mangolothi, the Deputy Chair of the Board, Shahieda Hendricks, and five board members who come from five of the 26 universities in South Africa. Together we represent a diverse group of women from different backgrounds, income levels, and experiences of the HE environment due to race, disabilities or cultural norms that spill into the workplace. I see myself as part of a partnership of women working towards implementing the HERS-SA vision, which is to contribute to the career advancement and leadership development of women in the HE sector.
What has been some of the successes of HERS-SA?
Thus far, we have trained more than 1 200 women through the HERS-SA Academy. Our next step is to investigate the possibility of implementing mentorship programmes and continuous learning opportunities, both online and at universities across South Africa, and to expose young, HE staff to HERS-SA leadership development opportunities early in their career. Mostly, I’d like to see HERS-SA strengthen women’s resolve to take up their position at the table throughout their institutions. When we ask for a seat at the table it creates the impression that we never belonged there in the first place.
You’ve been working as the Communication and PR Officer for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for the past nine years, have enrolled for a Master’s degree in English Studies this year, and have been running a communications and PR agency for the last six years. How have you managed to balance everything?
I’m not sure if one ever gets to a point where you manage to balance everything perfectly. It’s something I still struggle with. What I do know, is that I love the work I do at SU, at Wrap it Up PR & Communications, and the research I am currently involved in through my Masters. I think when you love what you do, you don’t see it as work. It becomes part of who you are. However, that has its down side too. There are many days that my husband, Eldridge, has to remind me to switch off my computer and step away from my desk long after the work day is done.
On most days my aim is to not drop the important balls on that given day. I also believe that slowing down and doing nothing are important to maintain balance and safeguard our mental health. We live in a world where the boundaries between work and downtime are no longer clear because we are constantly connected.
In 2017, I suffered severe burnout and depression – a big wakeup call. I had tried unsuccessfully to keep all the balls in the air. So I took leave to rethink what is realistically possible in an eight hour workday. Since then I’ve said no more often, I stick to my boundaries, and I do not let others’ procrastination become the reason I’m sitting up late at night playing catch-up on a deadline. Taking care of myself and slowing down has become a “revolutionary act” for me that has benefitted me more in my career and my personal life than the hamster-on-a-wheel approach. Ironically, you produce better quality work when you have balance.
You are very passionate about the empowerment of women in all spheres of life. What has been driving this passion?
When you are in a position to empower someone else, you shouldn’t hesitate to give them a hand up. I grew up in Idas Valley, a community with a mixture of working and middle class families. In such an environment you cannot be oblivious to unemployment, poverty, and the lack of opportunities that some South Africans have to good quality education. In South Africa, especially, empowering others as you climb the ladder becomes a moral duty. I am where I am today because I was empowered by women and male leaders. The women and men that have impacted on my life make up a diverse group, from my grandmothers (neither of whom finished school), to academics and support staff at various institutions in South Africa, to businessmen and women, as well as my parents and Eldridge. So I cannot help but be passionate about empowerment in general and the empowerment of all women.
What would your message of encouragement be to empower young women?
Seek mentorship from female and male leaders whom you admire, even if they are thousands of miles ahead of you on their career paths and make sure they’ll push you. Put your hand up and get involved in projects or initiatives that require skills that far outweigh your current skill set. You may fail along the way and feel out of your depth, but you will learn, acquire new skills and more confidence in your abilities. Most importantly – and perhaps a bit clichéd – be yourself even if it means not fitting into the “norms” dictated by society.
WHAT IS HERS-SA?
HERS-SA was established in 2000 by women academics who wanted to provide women academic and support staff with opportunities to develop their leadership and management skills to progress to middle, senior and top management positions faster. Nineteen years later, senior and management positions at our public institutions are still held by males, in particular white males, and only three of the 26 HE institutions are led by black women.
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