Conference 2019: “Learning from Africa: Equal opportunities for women in academia”

A report by Susan Coetzee-Van Rooy (North-West University, South Africa)

One of the driving motivations behind the idea of the conference was the observation by some academics from Potsdam University that collaborate with African universities that more women in the academia in Africa (for example, in Ghana) seem to hold high level positions (for example, as full professors or academic managers at various levels). This situation seems to be cultivated without overt or formal legislation that aims to advance women in the academia; and it contrasted with the position of females in the German academia.

With this background in mind, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts garnered support from the relevant offices at the University of Potsdam to host the conference, “Learning from Africa: Equal opportunities for women in academia” from 28-30 October 2019. Delegates from Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa presented the landscapes in their respective countries related to the issue of equal opportunities for women in the academia. Colleagues from relevant offices at the University of Potsdam, as well as a representative from the private business sector also presented a view on the German situation. The conference concluded with a panel discussion where the insights from the conference were shared with interested members of the wider public in Potsdam.

In this report, a macro-level summary of the main issues that emerged from each presentation will be offered. The aim is not to provide a complete rendition of the presentations, but rather to highlight the main points of learning that emerged from the presentations and the discussions. [conference programme] [abstracts]

Jemima Akosua Anderson (University of Ghana, Legon)

One of the main insights from the presentation by Professor Anderson is the nature of the traditional perception of Ghanaian women. Mindful of all the caveats about differences between regions in Africa and in Ghana itself, Professor Anderson discussed the traditional views of women in the Akan group which makes up 49% of the population in Ghana. In the Akan group, social organization is matrilineal; the children of the family, for example, belong to the woman’s family. Akan women are regarded as independent and they, for example, have the right to own land. The history of Ghanaian female warrior’s like Yáá Asantwaa (1840-1921) that saved the ceremonial golden stool of the Ashanti people from pillage by the British is one example of such a memorable female figure. The historical position of strong women in the Akan tradition enable women in Ghana to derive social power from this background. Colonialism and Christianity do erode the matrilineal culture of the Akan people, but in general, Ghanaian people that are aware of the Akan traditions are still influenced by the ideas that
women are strong and that when you educate a woman, you educate a nation. Women are still under-represented in the higher academic and management positions at universities in Ghana, but they are not absent in total.

Grace Nana Aba Dawson-Ahmoah (University of Ghana, Legon)

The main message from Ms Grace Dawson-Ahmoah is that women in Ghana and the broader West African region do not perceive a technical education as a viable option. Women in technical careers (even as educators in technical institutions) are seen as females “who are closer to a male”.
Technical education is traditionally seen as a terrain for men. Ms Dawson-Ahmoah concluded by highlighting the importance of orientation of the population to change their attitudes towards women in technical careers. In the discussion session, a conference attendee noted that the low numbers of women in technical careers or technical education in Ghana are similar to that in Germany.

Lillian Brise (Independent researcher, Germany/Switzerland/Nigeria)

Dr Brise opened her presentation by raising the following question: what is there to learn from Africa on the topic of gender equality? She stated that there is the outward picture of the inclusion of women in the Nigerian academic sector, but that the reality conceals many problems. One of the main drivers of gender roles in the Nigerian society is the importance afforded to religion. It is rare to find a person that espouses no religion in Nigeria. The gender roles espoused by the religions in both the North (which is mainly Islam) and the South (which is mainly Christian) are similar: it is a patriarchal society, where gender inequality is preached from the holy books of all religions, and women are tied to their men culturally (i.e. a woman is always the daughter of someone or the wife of someone). The main message from Dr Brise’s presentation was that if women do not participate fully in Nigeria (a nation with one of the largest populations on earth), the country misses out on enormous potential.
The second idea raised by Dr Brise is the notion that the representation of women in the academia might not be a true sign of inclusion. Women possibly flow into universities because a well-educated woman who upholds the traditional values of the patriarchal society fetches a higher bride price and is therefore seen as ideal “wife material”. Many women who go to university never expect to practice their professions; as the aim of their families simply is to raise their value as potential brides. Dr Brise encouraged us to question how economic and social factors play into the increase of women in education in general. She remains concerned about the pervasive social and economic factors that potentially undermine the equality of women in education. She pleads for longitudinal studies to investigate if women in education are indeed becoming more equal or if the increase in numbers of women in the academia simply continues the cultural practices that relegate women to their potential as “wife material”. In the discussion session, the similarities between Afrikaans white female students in South Africa and the shared experiences in Nigeria were raised. The idea in many Afrikaans white families is also that females are sent to university to get a degree and catch a husband. The catching of a husband is regarded as more important than the degree in some families. The same waste of potential could also be present in the case of Afrikaans white female students: they are trained and educated, but never practice their careers.

Christina Wolff (Central equal opportunity commissioner of Potsdam University)

Christina Wolff from the Central equal opportunities office of Potsdam University presented information about the representation of women in the German parliament for example. In 1949, 6.8% of the members of parliament were women; and in 2019, it is 31% – which remains a small percentage.
In general, there are more men than women involved in higher education (as students and as staff); and in some disciplines a student could complete a course without ever seeing a female lecturer / professor. At Potsdam University, the Central equal opportunity office tries to offer support to all its staff and students that would enable them to thrive. Short term child care would, for example, be arranged for students or staff who need to complete important work. One of the main challenges in the German society remains stereotypes and gender biases. This amounts to a system of structural discrimination. In the discussion session, it was explained that it is not legal in Germany to have any laws (including labour laws) that advantages people on the base of race, gender, ethnicity, etc. If I understand correctly, this was an important decision taken after World War II that was carried into the processes when East and West Germany united after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Affirmative action policies are therefore de facto illegal in Germany. The advancement of diversity in the German workforce in general therefore remains a matter of choice of the management of institutions.

Heike Küchmeister (Potsdam Graduate School)

Dr Heike Küchmeister provided information about the support offered to PhD candidates and Postdocs at Potsdam University. The situation related to PhDs in Germany is very different from that in South Africa. Germany has too many PhDs and therefore many people who obtain a PhD need to consider where they will find work if they cannot be absorbed in the academia. The Graduate School offers many programmes that assist PhD and Post-Doctoral candidates to think creatively about other career paths if they do not find work in the academia. They also support PhD candidates in the initial phases of study, and they create a platform for building supporting networks in these groups.

Kave Bulambo (Founder of My Career Path operating from Berlin)

Kave Bulambo is an entrepreneur with a background in Public Administration that created her own company working from Berlin to advance thinking about diversity and its strengths in the work force. She emphasised that in Germany, the call to appoint diverse staff is an individual call that should resonate with the managers of a company before they put this on the agenda of their recruitment processes. She emphasised that women should not wait for permission to enter the work force, but rather network and organize their way into the work force. One the most poignant quotations used by Ms Bulambo is: “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture” (Chimamada Ngozi Adichie). On a private note, Ms Bulambo weighed in on the difficulties of getting a PhD during the discussions and explained that these had deterred her from pursuing the degree.

Susan Coetzee-Van Rooy (North-West University, South Africa)

The South African delegation (Chantelle Kruger, Pheladi Fakude, Susan Coetzee-Van Rooy) realized quite soon during our preparation for the conference that our households during our lives influenced our prospects in the academia profoundly. We found confirmation for this experience in Probert (2005) and therefore structured our presentations to focus on the nature of the households we were (and are) part of during our lives and how these households inspired or hindered our progress towards an academic career.
The presentation of Prof. Coetzee-Van Rooy had two sections: a national specific, sector specific and NWU specific overview of the legislation related to gender equality in South Africa (including the Constitution, The Commission of Gender Equality, and equity plans of institutions, focusing on the NWU). The second section of the presentation was her narrative of many kinds of privileges that enabled her to become an academic and an academic manager (the privileged state schooling of a white child in apartheid which was funded exceptionally well compared to the educational funding expended for black children; the privilege of her childhood family as a girl child where she had a wise mother and less authoritarian father by Afrikaans standards; the privileges of her household as an adult woman married to a feminist who shares the child rearing and household duties with her). In this presentation, the discrepancy between the wonderful legislation that advances gender equality and the scourge of gender-based violence was also discussed. In conclusion, the presentation noted with pride the advances made by women in the academia, but mourned the lack of safety of female students and staff and students and staff from different genders in education in South Africa. We agreed that the safety of females and people from a diversity of genders on our campuses are more important than boasting with the first female Vice-Chancellors at South African universities. We also mourned with deep sadness the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana and many other victims. This presentation stressed the enabling factors emanating from a solid legal framework for gender equality; and the importance of culture and social traditions played out in the households of girl children where messages of gender oppression could lead to people’s death.

Chantelle Kruger (North-West University, South Africa)

Ms Chantelle Kruger’s presentation focused on her experiences of crossing thresholds and being betwixt and between. She discussed the threshold experiences of her childhood, her missed opportunities to enter university after matric and her position of being on the cusp of becoming an academic who holds an MA and is struggling to find funds to complete her PhD. Her presentation reminded the audience that even in South Africa, poverty cuts across race and limits the opportunities of all people, including poor white female students. Ms Kruger also feels that communities should be educated in terms of children, parents, partners and/or spouses who decide to pursue an academic career. This will alleviate misconceptions related to academia, as well as cultivate an understanding of the pressures and challenges that emerging and established academics face.

Pheladi Fakude (North-West University, South Africa)

Ms Pheladi Fakude was raised in an extended family in the North. Her grandmother was a force of support in her life, but passed away when she was 12. Her mother worked such long hours and worked so hard, that she did not see her often. The one thing that she admired about her mother and that she took with her into her own life was that women must work hard. Ms Fakude had an intense love for school since her early childhood. She related an incident where she was ill and her grandmother said that she could not go to school. Her grandmother walked with her to school to tell the teacher and the teacher gave her permission to leave school because she was ill. Poverty is an all-present memory in Ms Fakude’s life. Moving to high school for example was a struggle as it required her to get a new uniform, and the high school did not have a feeding scheme. Girls in her community had household chores after school; which boys did not have. She was entrepreneurial and started small businesses (for example plaiting hair) to support herself and her family since she can remember. When she reached university, she did get financial support, but it never covered the complete study fees and her living costs. Ms Fakude stressed that funding makes all the difference if one wants to increase the representation of poor female students in education. She also stressed that women should take charge of their lives and make choices that would advance them. Her current household does offer support for her work, but as tradition dictates, she still does the majority of the household work after her work at the university as a lecturer. She calls this her “second shift”. The pattern since her childhood has changed as her husband does assist her from time to time; but it still seems as if the girls have household chores after school and the boys do not. She started the presentation with a view that girl children should get gifts like cars, and also see their fathers cook. This would be the only way in which the traditional roles of female and male children change. This links to the idea of a cultural or societal re-orientation by Ms Grace Dawson-Ahmoah as well.

Summary and conclusions

The conference ended with a session where the panel was engaged by the public. The panel presented the following lessons learnt and these were discussed with the public attendees:

  • In university systems, there are structural difficulties that disadvantage women to advance in the academia.
  • The cultural conceptualizations of gender have an influence on the potential for equality in all societies. These conceptualizations could hinder girl children to realize their full potential.
  • The households of girl children influence the vision of females for their lives, also as workers. The supportive nature of partners in households emerged as a consistent theme in the narratives of the presenters (ranging from a husband who was willing to care for a three month old baby so that his wife could start a PhD in the USA to a father that was less autocratic and had discussions about politics and economics with his girl child). The partners of the presenters were all highly successful men.
  • People of all gender should be involved in the discussion about equality in the academia. There is no gain in a discussion of gender equality if for example male participants are not involved. Male participants are the partners of some female academics and they need to also invest in co-parenting and sharing the household loads so that the workload of females in the “second shift” could be relieved in the cases where females are still mainly responsible for household chores and child rearing. The aim should be to have fairer and more equal distribution of the household and child care loads for all working parents.

The NWU delegates were surprised at how uplifting it was to discuss personal narratives with other female academics from Africa and Germany. We would like to recommend that people from more diverse genders be invited to tell their narratives. The power of personal narratives as instruments to illustrate issues of equality and/or oppression was highlighted at the conference.
For South Africa, we are fortunate to have excellent gender equality legislation. Conversations about the cultures that underpin gender-based violence need urgent attention. We are grateful for every female academic and academic manager in South Africa and the NWU. We would be even more delighted if we are certain that female students and staff are safe from violence (and the anxieties related to potential violence) on our campuses and on all campuses in South Africa.