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Black women in South African academia struggle to get ahead: what needs to change

A lecturer assisting her students in class.
Institutional management owes it to society to investigate whether their own culture excludes black women and makes them feel like imposters. shutterstock

In South Africa, the number of black women who acquire undergraduate degrees has increased more than any other population group. Yet they remain underrepresented in senior academic and management positions in the country’s higher education institutions.

Historically, black South African pupils received separate schooling and less funding for education from the apartheid government than white pupils. Mixed-race, Indian and Asian learners received slightly more than black learners. Separate higher education institutions were also established for the different race groups. Very few black students could apply for special permission to attend historically white institutions, and only for specific careers.

Black women have also been historically and culturally marginalised in their families and society. Despite legislation to support transformation, black women remain the most marginalised.

Under apartheid, white women received the same financial, educational and cultural favour as white men. Policies and programmes initially aimed at changing the imbalance, have a major loophole for employment equity. It places white women on par with black women and men as “previously disadvantaged” and thus equally entitled to employment opportunities.

While the responsibility for redressing the issues should not be laid solely at the feet of higher education institutions, the onus should not rest upon black women to rectify the problematic practices.

For my PhD in higher education I did an in-depth investigation of the narratives of six black women academics at four South African higher education institutions. For the investigation to be as unbiased as possible, it was important to look at the role of the institutions as well as the individual and what possible enablers and constraints could be identified in this interplay. The aim was to identify what possibly influenced the low uptake of black women in senior positions in South Africa’s higher education institutions.

It was important to investigate the history of the institutions as well as to establish their post-apartheid transformation policies. The sense of identity, familial and educational connections the women developed during their educational journeys was an important factor. Black women are often seen as a homogeneous group but the academics in my study were as diverse in personality, cultural and political backgrounds and aspirations as any other group.

The research

For the pilot study I interviewed 19 respondents once in a group setting. I reported in-depth on six participants who were asked to respond in two one-hour sessions. One session was about their educational background and the other about their current academic context. I encouraged the participants to talk freely about their experiences.

The participants came from various backgrounds ranging from urban impoverished to middle-class. The 25 participants, ranging from 37 to 45 years old, were in either senior, mid or junior positions in academia.

All said that they loved working with their students irrespective of student race. Some said they experienced disrespect from some white students but that other white students made up for it. Those at historically white institutions said that student interaction was the best part of their job.

The main concern many of the women had about historically black institutions was that students were poor and often came to class hungry. Those teaching at these institutions said they appreciated interaction with colleagues and students alike.

All participants who had experience at both historically white and black institutions said that they had been happier while working at historically black institutions. They felt respected as equals and valued, also by their white counterparts. They felt satisfied that they had progressed in their careers in accordance with their efforts. They mentioned that they often socialised with their colleagues irrespective of race.

Interviewees in historically white institutions said that they constantly felt unheard in meetings, not complimented for efforts, overlooked for mentoring in favour of less experienced white men and women and sometimes black men. One academic said:

I noticed that I was being taught while white colleagues would be mentored.

They also said they felt left out of the social “cliques” formed among white colleagues. Those at historically white institutions felt that if they wanted to progress they would have to leave their current institution. They said they would leave for an opportunity at a historically black institution, or another career, even for less money.

The analogies that emerged from what the respondents told me were of constantly shifting goalposts and marble (rather than glass) ceilings – impenetrable and nontransparent. Black women at historically white institutions said they found it difficult to highlight problematic behaviour lest they sound like the “complaining victim”. And they often felt uninformed of the standard which allowed others to advance over them.

The fear of victimisation was persistent. During my interviews every academic from historically white institutions repeatedly asked to be assured of anonymity.

The study shows there’s silence around the need for a caring environment for all academics, especially black women.

Going forward

I suggest the following steps:

  • Institutions need ongoing investigations and open discussions about ways to attract more black women into academia.

  • Institutional management owes it to society to investigate whether their own culture excludes black women and makes them feel like impostors.

  • Government needs to amend legislation that views white women as disadvantaged to the same extent as black women; and white women should acknowledge the difference.

  • A women and race studies department should be standard at all institutions. Universities need to make sure the voices of black women are heard and recognise their role in transformation.

  • Mentoring of new black women academics should be standard practice. They should be encouraged to exercise agency and help change the culture.

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