On 27 August, Rhodes University Registrar, Dr Adéle Moodly, presented her second public lecture during Women’s Month, titled ‘Understanding and facilitating women’s pathways to higher education leadership’.
“These public lectures are my way of contributing to the voices in this space during a very important month for women,” said Dr Moodly.
The focus of her talk was on women’s experiences within gendered university spaces. “It is often expected that women exercise their own agency in applying for and/or occupying positions of leadership: But the question is, ‘how do women exercise their agency in the myriad of challenges and barriers as experienced?’ These impact on women’s perceptions of themselves and their abilities,” she explained.
Citing the work of Herbst published in 2020, on the confidence gap and women leaders’ underrepresentation in academia, Dr Moodly painted a framework of the still-pervading stereotypical expectations of leadership characteristics, which are often “admired in men yet admonished in women”.
“Women expressing behaviour outside of accepted societal norms were often avoided, silenced, marginalised or excluded from spaces of influence within universities,” Dr Moodly explained. “The effect was that women tended to respond by opting out of, or avoiding, leadership positions as a ‘self-preservation strategy’, since they experienced the culture as hostile.”
The response to this behaviour, she said, tended towards a ‘fixing the women’ approach; the perception being that women had to be trained to adapt to gendered institutional cultures.
Through her presentations of women’s stories, Dr Moodly magnified how stereotyped gendered characteristics impacted on women’s self-confidence, explicating the relationship between self-confidence and effective leadership.
Citing various authors, she argued that there was a direct relationship between confidence and the attainment of power and status; and that the latter was also an indicator of competence.
“Gendered institutional culture impacted directly on women’s self-confidence, leading women to question and doubt their legitimacy as leaders,” Dr Moodly asserted.
She stated that the focus of leadership intervention programmes should not only be through women-only development programmes, but should explore the ‘legitimacy deficit’, as described by Herbst, that women face when taking up leadership roles.
Acknowledging that women’s missing agency is not the only reason for the under-representation of women in leadership, Dr Moodly put forth that she agrees with Herbst. “In considering the multiplicity of experiences of women, it necessitates a new developmental approach to women in and aspiring to senior leadership positions.”
She quoted Herbst, stating that women need to be emboldened ‘to back themselves more, and doubt themselves less’.
Though solutions to the underrepresentation of women in leadership could never be a quick-fix, a key underlying factor could be identified – namely, the agency of those in leadership across the university.
“Raising consciousness and awareness within the university leadership to understand and engage the experiences of women, is key to the transformation of university leadership. They need to be encouraged to actively exercise their agency and to be the voices of and for change,” she concluded.