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Oluwakemi Igiebor

March 8th, 2024

Can institutional gender policies advance women to academic leadership positions in Africa?

0 comments | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Oluwakemi Igiebor

March 8th, 2024

Can institutional gender policies advance women to academic leadership positions in Africa?

0 comments | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

University policies to promote gender equality in academia are a necessary but insufficient condition to ending the underrepresentation of women, writes Oluwakemi Igiebor.

The persistent underrepresentation of women in academic leadership positions has often necessitated academic institutions to adopt gender equity policies and establish gender centres. However, questions linger about the effectiveness of such policies in African universities. Do they serve as robust mechanisms for transformative change, especially in enhancing women’s progression to academic leadership in Africa, or are they merely tokenistic efforts that pay lip service to gender issues?

Institutional gender policies

University gender policies are comprehensive action plans that include institutional commitments and gender targets. They often aim at addressing gender issues, bridging gender gaps, and institutionalising gender equity. These policies include initiatives that range from targeted recruitment, mentorship programs, and the use of quotas to increase women’s share in academic leadership to broader approaches like revising criteria for promotions and tenure to eliminate gender bias.

Recognising the ‘double burden’ that women often face in balancing professional and personal lives, many of these policies also include provisions to accommodate family responsibilities. Gender equity policies often serve as a foundation for incremental change, even if they are not transformative in the immediate term. For example, policies that promote the hiring and promotion of women faculty can gradually change the gender composition of academic departments, albeit slowly. Such incremental changes can shift institutional culture in the long run, providing a more inclusive environment for women to progress to academic leadership.

The reality check

Over time, international guidelines and funding conditions have influenced the formulation and orientation of gender equity policies in most African universities. For example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has funded gender initiatives and supported the establishment of gender centres in some African universities. Additionally, the World Bank’s higher education projects in Africa often include gender-sensitive components as conditions for funding. Consequently, universities receiving such funds are compelled to integrate gender equity policies to meet donor requirements. While such influences have catalysed the integration of gender perspectives into institutional policies, their efficacy is often compromised when not adapted to local contexts and realities. Although many universities across the African continent have instituted policies purportedly aimed at bridging the gender gap, especially in academic leadership, these often exist more as formalities rather than effective catalysts for change.

Existing evidence has shown that underlying continuities of gender inequalities in the form of silence, absence, exclusion and male dominance are implicitly embedded in university gender policy documents. As such, deeply ingrained cultural and societal norms that create a structural bias against women in academic settings are continually being reproduced, resulting in a sustained institutional gender imbalance, especially in academic leadership positions. A common explanation is that academic institutions are not monolithic entities but are historically constituted and shaped by factors such as colonial legacies and cultural contexts, among others.

Unfortunately, in many cases, gender equity policies are enacted to fulfil compliance requirements or to enhance institutional reputation without sincere efforts to enforce them, therefore serving as tokens rather than as instruments for institutional gender change. While institutions may tout their gender equity policies as evidence of progressive attitudes, the lack of tangible outcomes exposes the superficiality of such measures.

Beyond the policy rhetoric

The cultural and structural challenges that impede gender equity are often deeply rooted and resistant to policy-driven change. As such, it is likely that more than formal equity policies are needed to alter the existing male-dominated logic of institutions in a significant way. Bridging the gender gap in academic leadership requires more rigorous approaches beyond the policy rhetoric. Africa needs more gender-competent university leaders who can recognise crucial micro-foundations influencing the way rules, norms, and actors interact to tackle historically male-dominated, masculinist structures and culture.

Where gender policies are imported from external sources, they need to be attuned to local conditions, given that African formal and informal institutional contexts are significantly different to those in Western countries. The absence of context-specific workable procedures, clear action plans, sanctions, and gender competence will make gender equity policies remain ineffectual. Taking historical factors such as culturally ingrained patriarchal ideologies and colonial legacies into consideration is critical when formulating equity policies for advancing women to academic leadership.


Photo credit: Pexels

About the author

Oluwakemi

Oluwakemi Igiebor

Dr Oluwakemi Igiebor is a Research Fellow at the Public Policy Institute, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She currently works on the Gender Responsive Analysis and Budgeting (GRAB) project. Her research interests span policy analysis, gender budgeting, higher education leadership, feminist institutionalism, workplace diversity, and equity and inclusion (DE&I).

Posted In: Development | Education

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