Op-Ed: Women leaders negotiate a difficult path

Posted on August 04, 2017


Women's participation rates have increased significantly at all education levels. Yet the numbers of women at the helm of universities continues to lag. This imbalance occurs despite significant increases in women's participation in formal employment and higher education.

South Africa currently has three women vice-chancellors, from four in 2010, even though the number of universities has increased from 23 to 26.

Gender equity policies are necessary, but not in themselves sufficient to ensure gender parity. Part of the issue is that leadership characteristics are associated with masculinity, often to the disadvantage of female candidates. Assertive individualism, certainty and firmness are all seen as masculine traits which are also associated with leadership.

Women leaders have to navigate a complex set of contradictions. There is an expectation that women have a different leadership style: more participatory, cooperative and empathic. On the other hand, we can be judged as too soft, and not firm enough. Those women who demonstrate strong assertive behaviour tend to face criticism for being too much like men in the position.

Many senior women academics, deans and deputy vice-chancellors indicate that they would not want VC jobs as they are too managerial, administrative and political. Those women who apply for management and leadership positions are often said to be "brave enough to apply". The competitive and sometimes public selection processes can be a disincentive for women since being openly competitive and ambitious are not seen as flattering feminine characteristics.

In most cultures women still bear the major responsibility for organising family and domestic life. The VC position, like many other executive roles, is a position that is based on an assumption of there being someone at home to take care of domestic and family responsibilities.

But it is important to acknowledge that individual choices are made within contexts that either facilitate or constrain these choices and there is ample evidence that there are specific gender-related factors that convince many women that a VC's job is not a desirable choice.

Universities are embedded within society. Changing organisational practices and processes will require concerted attention over time accompanied by societal shifts in gender-related expectations. Universities can identify many of the unsaid rules and informal practices that inhibit women moving into leadership roles and then resolve to change them.

Female leaders can contribute to change by talking about our experiences: not only the challenges but also the achievement and fulfilment that can be derived from the job. Leading a university gives one a unique opportunity to influence the lives of future generations of professionals and leaders, and I regard it as a privilege and an honour.


Prof De la Rey is Vice-Chancellor and Principal for the University of Pretoria.

This article originally appeared in The Pretoria News on 1 August 2017.



- Author Prof Cheryl de la Rey

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