Institutional Cultures and Higher Education Leadership: Where are the Women?

CHE > Media and Publications > Research > Institutional Cultures and Higher Education Leadership: Where are the Women?
March, 2008

Opening session

Welcome: Dr Lesley Shackleton

Dr Shackleton officially opened the conference by welcoming delegates and reading conference greetings from Dr Judith White, President of HERS America and Dr Susan Harwood, Programme Director, WEXDEV in Australia.

The conference had been convened to explore how institutional cultures affected the paucity of women in higher education leadership. Dr Shackleton clarified that although institutional culture impacted on a broad range of issues including class and race, the focus of this particular conference was gender.

Opening addresses

Two speakers, Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Prof Lidia Brito, spoke to the topic of diversity in leadership in higher education in South and Southern Africa. The issues around leadership, institutional cultures and the gender-based power constructs that challenge higher education today are not peculiar to universities in Southern Africa, some of which have, in addition, also been exposed to armed conflict, disease and natural disasters.

Both speakers noted that universities, as places of learning and knowledge production, play key roles in providing critical intellectual leadership to guide the transformation both of themselves and the broader society. Leaders of the future are educated in the universities of today.

South African higher education institutions strive to be non-sexist and non-racist. In order to achieve this Dr Ramphele challenged universities to address institutional cultures which are awash with gender-based power constructs that contribute towards keeping women out of higher education leadership. Whilst accepting that employment equity legislation provides a good framework to eliminate racism and sexism from society, she highlighted how we are often blind to the subtler forms of discrimination which pervade our institutional cultures.

Dr Ramphele concluded that all must acknowledge that our society has a strong sexist, racist and authoritarian culture. She called for the redefinition of power away from the control model to an enabling model. Good leadership seen in this context then becomes empowering for all to rise to their full potential for the greater good of the institution and society as a whole. Lastly she called on all those present to move beyond talking about these issues and to take action.

Prof Brito pointed out that universities often state their commitment to equity in their vision and mission, but continue to measure their success in terms of numbers. This results in a failure to understand how the subtle forms of discrimination in institutional cultures create barriers to women's success. She called on higher education institutions not to ignore the wealth of women leadership available in their institutions and cautioned that failure to do so would lead to institutions missing out on at least 50% of the skills needed. Prof Brito emphasized that it is not only the task of university management or broader society to effect change, but that women themselves have a critical role to play. It is the responsibility of all women to amplify their voices, to show their faces, and to support one another.