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13 August 2019
Celebrating women is needed to change gendered institutional cultures

(Published - 13 August 2019)

The challenges for women reaching leadership positions in academia and research are complex and well documented. Literature has identified a range of barriers that women face when working in the higher education sector, and one of these barriers is gendered institutional cultures. I have my own lived experience of navigating academic leadership as a woman.

A recent reflection as I travelled with colleagues to a partner university in the North, was a perfect example of gendered institutional culture. As travelling partners, we were two women and one man and held the capacity as deans and deputy vice-chancellor. Each person we met to discuss future collaboration, without fail, first greeted our male colleague assuming that he is the deputy vice-chancellor and held the leadership position. It was interesting to observe this perpetual assumption. It raised concerns and pointed to the urgency of creating awareness of women and their work in the higher education sector.

It is not good enough to merely showcase women; we have to demonstrate how women are able to remain authentic to themselves as they navigate the academic research ladder in higher education. They often have to address the misconceptions and stereotypes of women while working to prove themselves as capable as their male counterparts. I believe in the principles of authentic leadership which are guided by your lived experiences. Authentic leadership also uses the life stories of others to shape your ethical values and leadership style. At UWC we have exceptional women that lead in all aspects of academia and research, and this Women’s Month, I would like to highlight a few of their stories.

Women in Science Research

There is a shortage of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) research fields, but at UWC we have an acclaimed academic who continues to inspire women. Professor Marla Trinidade is an internationally recognised scholar and currently holds the DST/NRF SARChI research chair in Microbial Genomics. She is also the Director of the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics. This is what she had to say about her journey:

“Just yesterday my 3rd-year students remarked on my infectious passion for research, and they wanted to understand why. I, once again, reflected on the freedom and opportunity that I have to apply my creativity to deliver new discoveries that can also be developed as innovative biotechnological solutions that serve humankind. To hear of an agricultural disease on a Carte Blanche episode on a Sunday night and have the ability to start a new project on the Monday morning that has the potential to eradicate the problem exemplifies so many of the aspects that make an academic career in STEM so thrilling and rewarding.”

Women in Health Sciences

Professor Helen Schneider is a public health specialist and health systems and policy researcher. For more than 25 years she has searched for solutions to the problems that the South African health system faces. As she discusses her role in research and academia, she reflects on how we operate in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world.

“Academics need to use their privileged positions to enable others – students, scholars and the wider society – to make sense of and navigate an increasingly volatile, uncertain and complex world. South Africa’s health system is in crisis, but also offers numerous opportunities on which to build public value. Through our research, teaching and engagement, it is critically important that we offer conceptual and methodological tools to engage this system in a value-based and resilient manner. As senior academics we also need to role model these attributes in our everyday practice. Senior women academics, in particular, have a responsibility to advocate for the rights of young female scholars, and create conditions for them to stay the course and become future leaders”.

Women in Social Sciences

Research in the field of social sciences is important as it assists us in understanding the changes in society and how we can influence them. Professor Nicolette Roman started her journey as a school teacher and she currently holds the DST/NRF/NDP Research Chair in Human Capabilities, Social Cohesion and the Family. Her research focuses on the psychological well-being and functioning of the family.

“Research in academia is never easy, but your approach to it is. Some advice to make the journey easier includes always having a vision, because that is the goal post. Work with a structured plan, keep your methodologies simple, intentionally expand your own knowledge as you share with others, create your research village with your students and like-minded colleagues in an environment of respect and nurturance, be solution rather than problem focused, because there will always be barriers and you need to scale them, but most importantly, don’t get in your own way. There is no place for power and a huge ego when you’re finding solutions to challenges in social science.”

Another exceptional woman in the area of social sciences is Professor Catherine Schenck who is our current SARChI chair in waste and society. Her research aims to identify ways of changing lifestyles to get society to think differently about how we use items and how we generate waste.

“My experience as a woman in social sciences may not be that different from males. It took dedication and focus, coupled with longer than normal working hours and a very supportive, unthreatened family. In the field of social sciences, you need to be able to get your hands dirty’. You need to be at the coalface of where people function and experience. Personally, you need to be open to learning from and with others. Social sciences offer opportunities for interdisciplinary research and networking, and thus you need to be comfortable with and unthreatened by who you are and your abilities”.

Women in Arts and Humanities

Research in the Arts and Humanities can be used to assist in the development of societies and improving the quality of life in our populations. We presently have two key women researchers who aim to improve the lives in our communities. Professor Sarojini Nadar is the Desmond Tutu Research Chair and Professor Patricia Hayes is our SARChI chair in visual history and theory. Prof Nadar highlights that:

“I have learned that our most authentic academic work emerges when we call deep on our courage, and dare to share our deepest fragility, not as ‘navel-gazing’ exhibitionism but because we know that when we share our vulnerabilities it develops solidarities across boundaries of race, religion and class. When we allow our bodies to determine our reflections we produce more profound analysis, and this deepens, rather than weakens, our theoretical reflections.”

Prof Hayes emphasises the need to continuously use young minds to challenge the status quo. She emphasises that:

“The ploughing of new research constantly back into the curriculum to challenge existing paradigms stimulates postgraduate research, capacity development and international partnerships. Students have become authors, collaborating at the highest level in re-theorising visuality from the global south, and overcoming a paucity in the teaching material (which normally emanates from Europe and North America) by the publication of original and excellent research from within the African university itself”.

Women in Education

Education is a crucial aspect of society and UWC has a niche focusing on technical and vocational education. This is led by our SARChI chair, Professor Joy Papier. She is passionate about building academics who can become role models at Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. Through her work she has developed capacity in this area and advocates as follows:

“Postgraduate studies in the area of TVET holds great promise for the development of new academics who can supervise future generations of TVET scholars. We hope that many more women at TVET colleges will feel inspired to get onto the research track”.

It is evident that these women serve as role models for other women in the higher education sector. As young women academics witness other women achieving their PhDs, being promoted to professor and integrating their family life into academia, it will hopefully influence how they perceive their own potential.