The struggle of women for power and leadership in universities



Despite great strides made over the years in women’s access and representation in African higher education, the percentage of women in leadership and decision-making positions remains low. Several studies have revealed that positions of power in an overwhelming majority of universities are held by men.

As described in Academia News, in a 2017 article, Dr. Florence Nakamanya and others revealed that Uganda has only three female vice-chancellors in its more than 50 universities. At the middle level, the number of female leaders was minimal. Makerere University – the largest tertiary institution in the country – employed only one female principal across its 10 colleges.

In 2020, South Africa had only four female vice-chancellors in its 26 universities. Likewise, a 2017 article in the Journal of Education and Practice found “very few” female leaders in higher education in Tanzania. Out of more than 60 universities and colleges, there were only two vice-chancellors and one college principal.

In a 2017 articleAkua Ahyia Adu-Oppong et al describes research – with the University of Education, Winneba, as a case study – to determine the place of women in higher education management in Ghana. They found no women in high-level positions such as vice-chancellor and professional vice-chancellor.

The action imperative

The need to put in place strategic measures – at continental and institutional levels – to close the persistent huge leadership gap between men and women was highlighted during a forum held on March 8, 2022 and organized by the Network of African Women in Higher Education (WoHEN) and the Association of African Universities (AAU) to mark International Women’s Day. The forum was titled “Breaking Down Biases in African Higher Education: Equality Today for a Sustainable Future”.

WoHEN was established last year to support women to participate effectively in the higher education sector, and in all thematic areas – leadership, management, administration, agriculture, business, health, STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education, humanities, social sciences and technical and vocational education. It is hosted by the AAU.

Nearly 300 higher education stakeholders from Africa and beyond attended the forum, which highlighted the importance of implementing policies to ensure equal opportunities for men and women to excel in African higher education institutions.

Among the key issues highlighted as critical to ensuring sustained progress in the fight for gender equity were strengthening collaboration, addressing gender inequality along the education pipeline, and gender mainstreaming in curricula.

As women climb the academic ladder, they are burdened with family responsibilities. Therefore, it is important that policies and actions are sensitive to their particular situation. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, women still do most of the caretaking, nurturing, cooking and cleaning in homes, although gender gaps have narrowed .

These responsibilities tend to reduce the overtime available to women in the evenings and weekends to focus on publications and research projects, among other activities, which are essential in promotion.

Gender equality was projected not only as a human right, but also as the basis for building just and progressive societies. All stakeholders were called upon to play a role in removing barriers that hinder women’s progress.

Barriers for women in the academic ladder

Barriers that have contributed to the current shortage of female leaders in higher education in Africa include, among others, issues related to funding. Undoubtedly, funding is a common challenge for African higher education in general. In the case of women trying to access funding for doctoral studies, for example, the ground does not seem flat.

Due to women’s “biological clock”, they are more likely to want to have children before pursuing a PhD. But, by then, they could be approaching or have passed the 35-year-old threshold required by some funding agencies to be eligible for doctoral scholarships, for example. The removal of these types of obstacles is called for.

Good practices were identified, such as scholarship programs that support a woman with a small child or infant, preschools on campus to allow breastfeeding, and a culture of paternity leave for men to to support female partners during maternity leave.

Gender stereotypes, prejudices and socio-cultural expectations are all obstacles that need to be overcome. The Institutionalization of Sexual Harassment Policies by Centers under the African Higher Education Centers of Excellence Impact Projectfor example, is promoted for wide adoption in the fight against sexual harassment.

unequal pay

The keynote address delivered at the AAU-WoHEN event by Dr. Christine Phiri Mushibwe, Vice Chancellor of Unicaf University in Zambia, highlighted the issue of women being paid less than men for the same jobs. Overall, the picture of women earning less than men is very similar.

According to a 2021 OECD Working Paperdespite the evolution of social standards and policies, on average in 25 European countries, there remains a gap of around 15% in hourly earnings between men and women with similar qualifications.

In a article in The conversation in 2018, Nisreen Ameen of Queen Mary University of London wrote that Britain had one of the largest gender pay gaps in Europe, with women earning around 21% less than men. This implies that women in UK universities still earn significantly less than their male colleagues.

Closing the gender pay gap is key to inspiring the next generation of female scholars to aspire to the top. This is also where leadership and integrity make the difference.

Advice to leaders and stakeholders

Professor Olusola Oyewole, Secretary General of the AAU, said in a speech that African higher education institutions must promote gender-friendly systems to end prejudice against women.

Addressing the challenges of gender inequality across the education pipeline, as well as ensuring gender-responsive pedagogy, emerged as key outcomes of the forum discussions. The need to eliminate stereotypes and negative cultural beliefs was highlighted. The promotion of networking and collaboration was also strongly recommended.

Representing the Forum for African Women Educationalists, Executive Director Martha Muhwezi called on universities to leverage advancements in technology to create opportunities for women to pursue their academic and professional goals alongside their natural biological roles. She also highlighted the importance of promoting the effective participation of women in fields such as STEM.

A focus on women with disabilities

While women generally face a long list of challenges that hinder their effective participation in leadership, those with different abilities tend to be more disadvantaged. It is therefore essential to pay particular attention to this group.

Persons with disabilities generally face difficulties in accessing and completing education, as well as in entering the open labor market. Seen from a gender perspectivemen with different abilities are almost twice as likely to be employed as women (Arthur O’Reilly 2003).

In addition, women with disabilities often face unequal hiring and promotion standards, unequal access to training and retraining, unequal pay for equal work, and they rarely participate in economic decision-making. .

African tertiary institutions need to implement strategies that help women with disabilities compete favorably for available opportunities. Having disability-friendly institutional buildings and mindsets, among other aspects, is of utmost importance.

Main recommendations

Key points promoted for action and adoption by African higher education institutions and stakeholders, from the discussions of participants at the AAU-WoHEN forum, included the following:

• Work with men and boys to break gender stereotypes. Implementing well-designed interventions to increase gender-equitable attitudes and behaviors among men and boys was seen as a priority.

• Scholarships adapted to women. Discussions highlighted the need for development partners and funding agencies to offer scholarships that pay particular attention to the particular issues of women. These may include extending the age limit and offering scholarships for women to travel with children to study in another location, for example.

• Raising awareness of equal pay issues. Ongoing advocacy must be undertaken by all stakeholders to ensure that the gender pay gap is closed. Structures should be put in place to eliminate human biases when decisions about women’s or men’s salaries are made, and with proportionate sanctions for failure to uphold the principles of equality and fairness.

• Women to support other women. Women in positions of power have been encouraged to create space for other young scholars to excel and rise through the ranks. Too often, women are said to be their own “enemies”, those at the top complicate the progress of others.

• Mentorship and role model. African higher education institutions have been called upon to prioritize mentorship and role modeling as a key strategy to empower more women with the aim of changing the narrative and having more women at the top.

Felicia Nkrumah Kuagbedzi is the Communications and Publications Officer at AAU. Nodumo Dhlamini is Director of ICT, Communications and Knowledge Management at AAU. Dr. Beatrice Khamati Njenga is Deputy Vice Chancellor for Advancement at the International Leadership University in Kenya. Kuagbedzi, Dhlamini and Khamati Njenga are all founding members of the African Women in Higher Education Network (WoHEN).


Adu-Oppong, Akua Ahyia; Aikins, Emma Darkoa; and Darko, Goddana Mensima (2016) “Women in Higher Education Management: A Ghanaian Perspective”. Ghana Library JournalVolume 26, Number 2.

Nyoni, Watende Pius; He, Chen and Yusuph, Mashala Lameck (2017) “Sustainable interventions to improve gender parity in higher education leadership positions in Tanzania”, in the Journal of Education and PracticeVolume 8, Number 13.

O’Reilly, Arthur (2003) “Employment Barriers for Women with Disabilities”, in The right to decent work for people with disabilities. IFP/Skills Working Paper, Number 14. International Labor Organization.


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