Africa’s female leaders are ‘expected to act like mothers’

Women who head universities say their gender is an extra job

July 18, 2015
Map of Africa
Source: iStock

Women in higher education leadership roles in Africa have described their gender as an extra job they must perform on top of their role as an academic, according to new research.

A study based on interviews with five female leaders at universities in sub-Saharan Africa has found that women in the region feel they are expected to serve as role models or maternal figures as well as leaders.

Ane Turner Johnson, associate professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, New Jersey, and author of the paper Performing and defying gender: women’s leadership experiences in African HE”, presented her findings at a Society for Research into Higher Education conference on women and higher education leadership in developing countries on 13 July.

She said the formal workplace roles of the women she interviewed typically involved providing direction for the institution, but they also had informal roles that they “knew it was expected for them to fulfil”.

“That was being a mother and a role model, which often overlapped with their personal identities, and which they could see were actually rewarding even though it came with additional work,” she said. “What I felt that these women described was gender as a job that they did on top of their formal jobs.”

However, despite these responsibilities involving “extra work”, Dr Johnson said interviewees described their nurturing roles as helping them “influence their colleagues and the direction of the organisation”.

“These intersections, while challenging, enabled their service to the campus in a much more holistic manner, they thought,” she said.

Dr Johnson added: “I know as a woman within my organisation there is definitely a script for how I am supposed to behave. I’m expected to be nurturing to my students and that’s not really in my nature.” She said she believed she had even been marked down in evaluations for not taking that approach.

Louise Morley, director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, who also spoke at the conference, said the neoliberalism” of the global academy means that the people who want to lead are often those who “sign up to or do not mind its values”.

“So it is difficult to get anybody entering who will disrupt, challenge or reject those values,” she said. “It’s this very dangerous cycle we have got to find a way of interrupting if we are ever to reconceptualise leadership.”

She also presented a report, Women in Higher Education Leadership in South Asia: Rejection, Refusal, Reluctance, Revisioning, with her co-author Barbara Crossouard, senior lecturer in education at University of Sussex.

“We’re not advocating simply counting more women into existing systems and structures. It’s not just about representation, it’s not just about quantitative change,” Professor Morley said. 

“It’s much more about re-visioning leadership and making [it] feel more attractive to more women and men. And more importantly to try and associate leadership less with performance, control, financial management, key performance indicators, regulation – to move out of that discourse and make it more generative, generous and ultimately gender-free.”

The SRHE session was held under Chatham House rules, but those quoted gave permission for their comments to be reported.

ellie.bothwell@tesglobal.com

THE’s inaugural Africa Universities Summit takes place later this month.

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