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Paucity of leadership roles for African women in higher education

In the corporate sphere, women have taken up roles in key, formal leadership roles because of their upward workforce mobility. However, they still lag behind men in many areas of leadership such as representing only 4.6 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), although female entrants in higher education institutions in Africa increased to about 45% as of 2011, they hold only about 10 percent of leadership positions in higher education. Globally, men outnumber women in higher education management, at about 5 to 1 in middle management and 20 to 1 at senior management levels. While women hold between 21-72 percent of faculty positions, they only hold 6-20 percent of leadership positions within their academic institutions.

According to an article by Lizana Oberholzer titled ‘Is there a Glass Ceiling in Higher Education?’, there are also concerns regarding BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) female representation, with 0.5% of UK female professors being Black.

Yet, women have been proven to possess the ability to improve institutional performance through the addition of soft skills, which provide tangible and intangible benefits. Research also shows that female representation in top education management structures brings informational and social diversity benefits. This is not any different from women’s contribution in the corporate sphere.

Root-cause analysis

Based on reports by UNESCO, women often experience invisibility, exclusion, isolation, and lack of support within higher education, which in turn affects the number of women who hold key positions. In fact, working conditions within tertiary institutions often don’t accommodate the needs of their female employees. Thus, women with young families often find it difficult to balance their work expectations with family needs.

For example, it is often assumed that women bring their academic career to an end or an indefinite pause when they request for maternity leaves. Thus, rather than prepare adequately to support the needs of young female academics, many university departments struggle to accept more female staff because of these future expectations and how it would affect their faculty.

Furthermore, even though research is at the fulcrum of any individual’s ability to climb the leadership ladder in academia, UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) data shows that less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. This may be connected to the disproportionate responsibilities for service in their academic departments as women tend to put in longer hours than their male counterparts for childcare, housework, and eldercare which in turn affects their ability to concentrate fully for the long hours required to churn out meaningful research work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that rising household and childcare duties had eaten away into the time spent on research, with academic mothers seeing a 33% larger decrease in research hours than fathers.

Read also: Bridging the Industry-Academia Gap Off-Grid

Regarding gender stereotypes, an article titled ‘Barriers to Women’s Representation in Academic Excellence and Positions of Power’ by Rizwana Yousaf et al. stated that many people hold implicit biases and prejudices of which they are unaware, but that nonetheless play a large role in their evaluation of people and their work. Such biases create inequality by causing people to expect greater competence from men than from women. This has led to the low rate of female upward mobility to education management roles. The most common constraints identified by various other studies include organisational culture, old boys’ network, poor support, and personal characteristics.

According to research, women within the South African higher education context experience marginalisation, under-representation, and the glass ceiling as the major obstacles in their career progression. Through a study conducted by Lekchiri et al. at a tertiary institution in Morocco, the following behaviours against women were also identified: verbal or physical or sexual harassment; unfair treatment; dismissal; and a lack of trust, recognition, or acknowledgement.

What solutions exist?

At BMGA, we believe that not only is it important that we find a way to narrow the gender skills gap, but we must ensure that young women in academia are afforded similar opportunities as their male counterparts. Therefore, in addition to the creation of the BMGA Fellows Program, a social impact initiative designed to narrow the gender skills gap amongst university graduates in Africa, we are working to ensure that we create a platform that provides women in academia the opportunity to reach a wider audience and attain visibility to enhance their career advancement.

Furthermore, to ensure that the glass ceiling in higher education is shattered, academia needs to be more considerate of recruitment practices that discriminate against women, implement flexible working practices, as well as research practices need to be considered to make sure that women can fully engage at all levels in an equal manner.

Research findings from some female academics in Ghana, government parastatals need to provide commitment and institutionalized frameworks through the provision of legislative and infrastructure support which create an enabling environment for women. Special programmes for women are necessary but they should be backed at government and institutional levels by anti-discrimination regulations.

Finally, the role of mentors and sponsors to support and vouch for women is crucial to exterminate the growing concern. By ensuring that female academics intentionally build their professional networks, they will be challenged to wade through stereotypes and barriers that may have impeded them from gaining upward mobility within tertiary institutions.

Abudu is the Founder & Managing Partner of BMGA, a finishing school that provides social and marketing intelligence that increases the productivity of people and organizations.

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