Boys' clubs need a culture overhaul

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

Wider concerns with racial representation in academia conceal a significant
gender imbalance.

After 20 years of South African democracy, the lack of transformation in
higher education is still a topical issue. We have been sluggish in
producing black full professors: only 4% of the 4 000 professors in higher
education are black, and of those only 0.85% are women.

   One must agree with Professor Xolela Mangcu, who recently cited these
abysmal statistics and argued they require urgent and sustained

   But for this to happen, hard realities have to be faced and some myths
need to be shattered.

   Let's start with one of the most dominant myths - the one that blames
high government salaries for stealing black graduates and staff away from

   Firstly, any graduate who has ever applied for a state job can tell you
that seeking a government job often feels like shooting in the dark.
Academia may actually have the edge over the state by being more transparent
and fair in recruitment and selection.

   Secondly, academia, by its nature, tends to be attractive to only a small
cohort of people who seek the freedom to pursue intellectual projects and
lifelong research.

   One can hardly expect that the majority of graduates, regardless of race,
will have an interest in university careers. Furthermore, there is high
professional prestige attached to a university career, and the fringe
benefits would be attractive to prospective academics.

   Besides, it is a job and that counts for a lot in a country with high
youth unemployment.

   So a key question to ask, rather, is why promising young staff and
graduates exit the system and what can be done to retain those who want to
stay in academia.

   Let's look at two hard realities at the individual and the structural

   Firstly, universities tend to have a low turnover rate at the senior
levels. This means that it is questionable whether there are tons of
academic jobs opening up just waiting for bright black PhDs to fill them.

   If anything, the reality is that pursuing a PhD increases black
graduates' sense of insecurity about job prospects in any sector, save for
the most specialised.

   It does not help that most corporate graduate recruitment programmes
place a premium on fresh-faced third- and fourth-year graduates in their
early 20s. Having a PhD in the social sciences, for example, can only make
one feel overeducated and underexperienced when one's peers are entering
industry at the honours level.

   The second issue is the financial reality facing many black graduates:
they are expected to take on family financial responsibility after the
initial family investment in their bachelor degrees.

   PhDs, which are sometimes precariously funded, offer no work experience
or professional networks; therefore black graduates usually end up going the
part-time study route, with all its risks and pitfalls.

   Worse still, many committed graduates carry through their initial student
loans into the postgraduate years and are faced with the dilemma of whether
to do PhDs or enter the job markets and start paying off the debts.

   If anybody has any doubt about the financial difficulties South African
students face, the recent protests at the University of Fort Hare, partly
driven by hungry students with insufficient aid, should give them pause for

   These are just some of the extrinsic structural realities facing
university transformation. In addition, within theuniversities,institutional
cultures that favour already powerful and established academics continue to
shape the statistics.

   It is not just white men and women who continue to reap the privileges of
unequal history, but also black men: new boys' clubs have grabbed a piece of
the action.

   This we can see in the numbers of black men in academic posts compared
with the number of black women. In 2012, the statistics at historically
black universities for black African full professors stood as follows:
University of Limpopo, 32 men and seven women; Unisa, 28 men and six women;
Zululand, 11 men and no women; and Walter Sisulu, 11 men and three women.

   Apart from the numbers, the sexist institutional culture that women
endure in historically black universities escapes scrutiny because of the
bigger concern about race.

   To solve these problems requires not just massive amounts of money, but
also massive political will in these institutions. Our own institution,
Rhodes University, has pioneered recruitment and retention programmes from
which emerging black women academics such as ourselves have benefited.

   But still, the informal whispers in the corridors that stigmatise these
sorts of programmes either by labelling them as "affirmative action
crutches", or blaming them for discriminating against "white men",
demonstrate that, in fact, universities as social institutions are not going
to take the lead in social transformation.

   In this context, strong institutional leadership has been critical.

   But in addition, informal support spaces such as the Women's Academic
Solidarity Association (Wasa), of which we have been a part, have given
black academics such as ourselves the resolve to say: "We're not leaving,
these institutions belong to all."

   On Women's Day this year (August 9), Wasa hosted a round-table reflecting
on 110 years of Rhodes history.

   Some of our guests were black women who were students in the 1970s and

   They shared their "stories" as part of a conversation in which we hope
our tertiary institutions can come to grips with the fact that, although
they may once have been hotbeds of revolutionary ideas, in practice, they
were and still are slow to interrogate their own culpability in perpetuating

Comment by: Babalwa Magoqwana & Nomalanga Mkhize.

Source: Mail and Guardian.