Fab Academic Phakeng challenges masculine power during SRC Leadership Week

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Former University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng talking to Rhodes University students. Photo cred: Vusumzi Tshekema.
Former University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng talking to Rhodes University students. Photo cred: Vusumzi Tshekema.

By Nizole Qete


The topic of women in leadership holds personal significance to many due to the pervasive patriarchal norms affecting societies worldwide. These conversations empower women and girls, providing a voice to the previously silenced. In Women's Month (August), we honour those who have struggled for women's rights and celebrate women's strength.

Rhodes University embraces gender diversity and respects all identities. Rhodes University Registrar Professor Adele Moodly expressed these sentiments at the recent SRC Leadership Week event.

Former Cape Town University Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng delivered a thought-provoking address on the dynamics of masculine power and the underestimated potential of Black women in leadership within higher education.

As Prof Phakeng explored this theme, it became clear that any comprehensive discussion on women's journey to leadership cannot disregard the influence of masculinity. Throughout history, the leadership narrative has been closely interwoven with the concept of masculinity, underscoring the need for an open analysis of how traditional notions of masculinity have played a pivotal role in shaping power dynamics. "The masculinity of power has led us in this world. When masculinity and the coloniality of power fail, men will want to capture women and get them to agree with what the men want. The masculinity and the coloniality of power got us into the mess we are in today. The masculinity of power wants us to believe that there can only be one style of leader. Anyone different is expected to assimilate into the roles that the masculinity of power has created. Women leaders are expected to become 'one of the boys' and men from the marginalised groups, including those who are gay or non-binary, are expected to conform as much as possible to the same model," said Prof Phakeng.

Her discourse extended to the injustices women in leadership often face – a scenario where they are considered only when a business falters. Still, as soon as stability is restored, they are replaced by men. Prof Phakeng remarked, "As a woman leader on this continent and in the world, I am very aware that often when the ship sinks, a woman is thrown in to catch it. Women come in to save the situation, and when they have swept, and the situation settles, a man is appointed to that position."

Prof Phakeng explained how creating fairer opportunities for women in Africa goes beyond simply giving them chances to lead. "It is one thing to open the opportunity for women to lead, but we must give them the space to lead in their own way, not in the way that a male leads. Africa will need different leadership to help us escape the mess our past leaders have put us in. In creating leadership, there needs to arise a magnitude of factors that label women for who they are. Being a woman is important, but it is not all who we are; it is not the whole story. Yes, it's an important part of the story but not the whole story," she said.

Prof Phakeng emphasised the importance of understanding intersectionality –acknowledging the diverse value systems within the female narrative is vital for fostering inclusive leadership.

Steering the conversation, Prof Phakeng explored the complex nature of power, mainly its association with masculine qualities. She highlighted the challenges Black women face in leadership positions within higher education. "I want to talk about the masculinity of power, invisibility, and underestimation of Black women in higher education leadership. This world is masculine, and the masculinity of power marginalises women. The number of women enrolled in undergraduate studies in South African universities outstrips that of their male counterparts. But it's the opposite regarding postgraduate studies and on the professional and senior academic levels. We know the shortage of women professors is one of the many issues in this country," she said.

The challenge of being a woman in leadership extends beyond professional responsibilities, encompassing the burden of dispelling gender-based scepticism and challenging deeply ingrained biases. "Any woman in leadership position has a burden to prove that women can do it. When a woman has ticked all the boxes, they start saying she slept her way up. Every time a Black woman fails, they conclude that all women are the same – but they don't judge men the same way. We have got to know that the fight is harder, but we are fighting because if we do not, the next generation will find itself in the same position. I am not saying women should just be promoted; I am saying we have got to understand the stance of women and ask difficult questions," she stated.

Prof Phakeng lambasted the insidious impact of power dynamics, wherein success is sometimes misconstrued as arising from inappropriate means and failures of Black women are generalised and absent in the context of men.

While representation is a significant stride, Prof Phakeng stressed its insufficiency in achieving true gender equality. "Representation is important, but it is not sufficient for gender equality. Appointing women is one thing, but it does not mean we have achieved gender equality because they may be underestimated and made invisible," she said. 

In closing, she called upon students to be resolute and committed to pursuing leadership roles, particularly for young Black women. Despite the arduous journey, she urged them to retain their authenticity as it holds the potential for victory. "If you are in the room and looking into getting into a leadership position, I am challenging you to stay determined and to commit to doing difficult things - it is hard to take a leadership position as a Black woman. You can do anything. Don't lose who you are because sometimes it is who you are that will make you win. Who you are is important, so own it, face the future with it, and don't expect it to be easy," she said. A panel discussion, including the former Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, followed Prof Phakeng's address.

Departing from the discourse's focus on masculinity's impact on leadership, Miss Tunzi commenced her speech by acknowledging the debt owed to the women who paved the way for progress. She aptly noted, "While celebrating Women's Day is a source of pride, it's also a reminder of the unchanging aspects of our struggle. You and I wouldn't be standing where we are today if not for the women who came before us and ensured that we are cementing ourselves in this moment and space. But it also hurts in the same breath because the more things change, the more they stay the same," she said.

In conclusion, Miss Tunzi invoked the legacy of pioneering women as an unceasing source of inspiration. "These extraordinary women that have come before us have paved the way for change, embodying the spirit of determination and unwavering commitment. I want us to let the legacy of these women be a timeless reminder of the unbreakable spirit that resides in each and every one of us. May we draw inspiration from their remarkable commitment and continue to stand up to injustice, knowing that our collective power knows no limits. Together we can defy any obstacle and create a future for ourselves and generations to come," she said.

As Women's Month continues, Professors Moodly and Phakeng, Miss Tunzi, and countless others remind us that empowering women in leadership isn't just about breaking glass ceilings. It's about reshaping the foundations of leadership to encompass diverse perspectives and experiences.