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Gender Equality in Higher Education: Breaking Down Barriers, Lifting Up Leaders

Author: Nicklaus Kruger & Melanie Snyders

This Women’s Month, a powerhouse panel of the University of the Western Cape’s women achievers reflected on the challenges, opportunities and achievements of women in higher education with a webinar on global citizenship and gender equality.

(Published - 31 August 2020)

Charlotte Magkomo Maxeke was the first black South African woman to graduate with a university degree, from Wilberforce University Ohio in the United States, in 1901. She went on to become a political activist, a religious leader, and a founder of the Bantu Women’s League. Her story speaks not just of gender equality in higher education, but also through high education - and what it enables us to achieve.”

For Professor Ruth Hall, who holds the South African research chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), Maxeke’s story holds important lessons. 

Hall was speaking as part of a powerhouse panel of women achievers from the University of the Western Cape (UWC), in a Women’s Month webinar on Promoting Gender Equality and Reducing Gender Discrimination In and Through Higher Education, reflecting on the challenges, opportunities and achievements of women in higher education.

“Charlotte Maxeke was an exceptional woman and a great achiever - but women should not have to be exceptional to achieve at a university,” Prof Hall noted. “If we want to dismantle gender inequality, and devise a more equal society, then women - and particularly women from disadvantaged backgrounds - shouldn’t have to make unreasonable sacrifices to achieve.”

Fellow panelist, Professor Vuyokazi Nomlomo, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Education and an internationally recognized scholar in language and education, helped explore some of those sacrifices.

“Across the world, there are now more women in academia, but most of those women don’t really get the opportunity to occupy high ranks and leadership positions,” Prof Nomlomo noted. “But we must go beyond the numbers, and look at the experiences of women in academia, and how those experiences - and opportunities - differ from their male counterparts. And then we need to have a conversation about that.”

She pointed out that there is a fine balance between teaching and research - a balance that needs to be struck for academics to be considered for promotion. But women generally also shoulder the lioness’ share of care work and housework, and their academic aspirations can be thrown off by motherhood - because bursaries are aimed at finishing studies at a particular age, and there are few part-time courses catering for working mothers.

There are many support programmes in place - such as the Developing the Research Scholar Programme at UWC. But those programmes may not be enough to get the job done, and theyneed to be expanded.

“We need to think in different ways about how we teach, and how we learn,” said Dr Mary Hames, Director of UWC’s Gender Equity Unit, a stalwart of the struggle for women’s empowerment and recipient of many prestigious grants.

“Not only formally within classroom spaces, but also around them, in the in-between spaces. Do it on the sports field. Do it while we sit outside in the sun. Share experiences and discuss what we consider equitable for every single body on our campus, across the gender spectrum.”


Global Citizenship To Solve Society’s Wicked Problems

The webinar was part of a series hosted by UWC’s DVC Research and Innovation, the Office for International Relations, the Gender Equity Unit and the Division for Postgraduate Studies. The series honours the life and the spirit of Nelson Mandela by reflecting on the role and contribution of universities in promoting global citizenship. 

“Nelson Mandela was a global citizen who championed the rights of women,” Prof Frantz noted. “Global citizenship is linked to freedom of mind, and open and authentic engagement that allows us to contribute to making real change happen.” 

It can also help us to engage with ‘wicked problems’: social or cultural challenges that are difficult or impossible to solve with the same old thinking, and that require innovative, holistic and collaborative approaches.

“A focus on global citizenship education can challenge the foundations of the cultural expectations that are embedded in us. It can get us to think differently - and more humanely - about gender equality,” Prof Frantz noted. “And it can help us to ensure, as we craft our vision for UWC and the future, that we continue to invest in the values and needs of people - and especially women.”

Subsequent sessions will cover: 

  • Session 3: Responding to the COVID Pandemic (September)
  • Session 4: Are Universities Effective in Global Citizenship Education? (October)
  • Session 5: Using Global Citizenship to Achieve SDG and NDP Goals: (November)

The third session of the Global Citizenship webinar series will take place on 16 September 2020. 

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