UP Women’s Leadership Programme set to create more gender equality in leadership

Posted on August 25, 2023

The University of Pretoria (UP) is set to invest significantly in a Women’s Leadership Programme to ensure more gender equality in leadership positions at the institution.

Professor Derick de Jongh, Director of UP’s Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute, which is spearheading the programme, believes he can be a strong advocate and changemaker for women’s rights. “Precisely for the reason that I’m not part of a woman’s group or a female, that the conversation is coming from somebody outside, from a different gender, makes it more powerful,” he said.

Furthermore, his family situation has made him a strong proponent of female empowerment. “The women in my life are highly qualified, very powerful women in their own right, and have influenced me. I’m very proud that my wife is an academic – in speech therapy at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University – and my one daughter is a medical doctor and the other a speech therapist with a master’s degree.”

De Jongh is not the sole promoter of this new programme, which is to be launched in March 2024. Its other champions include Professor Tanya van Wyk from the Department of Systematic and Historical Theology, who is doing an additional master’s degree at the Luthuli Institute; Ms Ntsikie Loteni, Director of UP’s Transformation Office; and Professor Louise Whittaker, Deputy Dean and Executive Director: Faculty at UP’s business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science.

The programme is also strongly supported by Professor Loretta Feris, Vice-Principal: Academic, and Professor Flavia Senkubuge, Acting Vice-Principal: Student Life. Feris and Senkubuge are part of UP’s executive management, the team responsible for the university’s strategic leadership and operational management.

The executive’s approval of the establishment of this leadership programme represents the first step towards its implementation. It is no longer mere wishful thinking. “It’s a big achievement, because now the Women’s Leadership Programme will form part of the university's strategic offering and core objectives, and that is to empower women through a very systematic, structured programme,” De Jongh said.

The underlying principle driving the programme is international research which shows that, although more women have access to education, this has not opened up more opportunities for them in leadership, economic empowerment, and political participation.

De Jongh said UP’s institutional culture also needs to be more open and supportive of gender issues. “There are very few opportunities to have critical and robust conversations about the complexities of women leadership at UP,” he said. “Beyond superficial mentions, people still tend to shy away from such sensitive topics.”

De Jongh said gender transformation at UP has not kept pace with the transformation of student demographics, which has seen the student body change to consist of more than 50% people of colour. “Staff demographics and more specifically women in leadership positions have not progressed at the same rate.”

Now the Woman Leadership Programme will change this. In a document aimed at attracting funding for the first phase of its rollout, Prof van Wyk explained how this type of programme has the potential to put more women in leadership roles. It can do this, she said, “through personalised learning experiences that address theoretical underpinnings of gender constructs, mentorship opportunities, practical skill-building activities; and by assisting women to address psychological barriers to growth”.

The interventions planned include academic training, mentoring, local and international exchanges, and leadership-immersion experiences. UP is progressing well in securing funding from a Cape Town-based foundation, and is also reaching out to international institutions with which it has signed memoranda of understanding: Leeds University, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and King’s College London.

Prof de Jongh said UP needs to be more proactive about women empowerment. “The only way to embed that into the organisation is by holding people in managerial positions accountable. Existing managers, whether male or female, must create pathways for women to move up in in the organisation. Performance appraisals of managers, heads of departments, and deans need to include the ability to foster, create, and advance women into senior positions.”

He said lack of mentorship at UP is a big barrier, advising that the university needs to set up systems that would see opportunities created for young females with a PhD or master’s degree.

Next up in the programme’s development is the appointment of a steering committee and a broader advisory committee. And, crucially, appointing a project leader to head the programme.

“Appointing a powerful woman in this role will not only attract funding, but will ensure that the programme will be successful and that the right message will be sent to all UP stakeholders – that we are serious about women’s leadership, development, and empowerment,” Prof de Jongh said.

- Author Professor Derick de Jongh, Director of UP’s Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute.

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