Rhodes University empowers women in celebration of women’s month

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Rhodes University celebrates women's month.
Rhodes University celebrates women's month.

By Karabo Dikobe, Third year BJourn student

August is not only a month of the celebration of womanhood and women in South Africa, but also a time to commemorate women who fought against the injustices of our societies.  This was especially significant, living within a predominantly patriarchal society with its concomitant gendered spaces perpetuating an oppressive culture against women, those perceived as minorities, and continued Gender-Based Violence (GBV). This was a sentiment shared by Rhodes University Registrar, Professor Adéle Moodly during her third, annual public lecture on 17 August 2021. Due to COVID-19 regulations, the lecture was held virtually and was attended by her family, friends, colleagues from various universities, and the general Rhodes University community.

Professor Moodly began her lecture by acknowledging that 2021 was declared by the government as the year of umama Charlotte Maxeke (née Manye), citing sources that described her as “a woman of many firsts and the mother of black freedom”.  The Registrar said mama Maxeke, as the first black woman to graduate with a BSc university degree, set a precedent for women in academia. She said that the plight of women of colour was still ongoing approximately 118 years later.

Among the topics, Professor Moodly spoke on are: women’s access to higher education, leadership within higher education, barriers of positional power, and facilitating and supporting women towards and within leadership. She said women have only recently within the last 150 years accessed higher education. Though this may seem like a great deal of years, she drew a comparison to their male counterparts, who have been privileged with access for over 800 years, with universities such as Oxford excluding women for over 700 years.  The difference is startling. “Academic positions for women came in the 1920s/1930s; with women accessing positions of full professorships only as recently as the 1940s,” she said.

Engagement around patriarchy and the resultant shortage of women in leadership within the higher education sector seems to make people uncomfortable, she stated. Professor Moodly quoted the Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir when she said, “When we have diverse leadership, we make better decisions, and we are more aware that we need to be able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes.” She added that: “leadership diversity brings new voices into the space. Even though countries like Sweden are leading in terms of women in leadership positions at higher education institutions, globally we still have a long way to go in achieving gender parity.”  

The Registrar said women are fighting institutional cultures of patriarchy, and structural barriers to take up spaces in leadership in higher education.  For women, the impact was exacerbated with the intersectionality of race and gender, with black South African women comprising a mere 9% of professorships.  She pointed to literature that affirmed that the trajectory to leadership in higher education was through scholarly merit and that being a professor was usually a prerequisite to become a dean, deputy vice-chancellor, and vice-chancellor.  Highlighting countries, including the UK, where black women comprised only 2% of the professoriate, she stated that women were always on the backfoot. “There is a dual challenge to be met; increasing the participation and progression of black academics in general and equally, if not more importantly, increasing the participation and progression of black females in academia,” she added, citing an article by Tyatya in the Daily Maverick.  She challenged the narrative that says leadership is something that is burdensome, a loss, a sacrifice, and an unliveable life. She said this was the dominant narrative, perpetuated by the writings that speak of the landscape of higher education in South Africa. “This narrative is also the reason women are dismissing leadership as a career option”.   Though higher education experienced volatility, it was not in a permanent state of crisis, neither should this define the role of leadership, nor women’s role within leadership.   Absent from the narrative were issues of financial gain and positional power.  Considering only the challenges, women would feel ashamed, doubtful, and incompetent lest they were seen to fail. We must resist, contest, and change this narrative, making leadership desirable for women” said Professor Moodly.

“Women are judged more harshly, especially black women, women living with disabilities, and women who are members of the LGBTQIA++ community. There is a higher proportion of teaching and a lower proportion of research for women. It is more difficult for women with young children to simultaneously raise their children and focus on their betterment in the higher education realm. More women experience unfairness than men, and they have less influence on decisions relating to their work. This is because women do not occupy these positions that give them access to this influence because of the sense of fear and uncertainty. Even when women do occupy these seats, there are certain layers that a woman must go through just to be taken seriously. The road to leadership is not an easy pathway, it is long, difficult, and tumultuous. There is also a massive power and financial gap,” said the Registrar.

She said part of the answer to these challenges is to bring men on board and to form strategic partnerships and collaborations with influential men. She also said policy implementation is important; there cannot be gender-neutral policies have given the barriers and challenges that women face.  Referring to the Moodly-Toni Framework, developed by herself and her research partner, Dr Toni, as a pathway to women in leadership she stated, “We need to look at the gendered spaces and have uncomfortable conversations regarding them. There is a need for interventions in the various stages of women’s career phases. This is how we can build up women towards leadership,” she concluded. 

The lecture also paid tribute to those who lost their lives due to COVID-19 and the scourge of GBV.