Melanie Walker and Sonja Loots

Funding: SARCHi chair, NRF grant number 86540

The project aims were: 1) to explore through the lens of a capabilities metric of gender justice, the relationship between higher education and women’s agency and empowerment over time. 2) To explore under what conditions higher education and related policies are empowering (or barrier-producing) and ‘agency-expanding’ for individual young women to be able to pursue a life of confidence and dignity as historically marginalised and/or gender disadvantaged social groups.  The project used mixed methods and was located at a large, dual-medium (Afrikaans and English) South African university with a majority of black student intake and slightly more women undergraduates than men.  The qualitative database consisted of: 1) 100 life grids from black and white women, 2) Interviews with 39 female and 18 male, black and white, undergraduate and postgraduate student volunteers. 3) Nine women were followed up for interviews in 2015 and again in 2016. Based on the interview data, women’s valued capabilities were identified and then refined through subsequent evidence-based iterations. In the interviews, students were encouraged to reflect on their gendered experiences, biographically, socially, and in higher education. Questions were also framed to include experiences within different university spaces, such as teaching and learning, on-campus student residences, sport, and other extra-curricular spaces. A survey was conducted in 2014 with students to check the initial list of capabilities in relation to race and gender; 761 students responded. In 2015, a participatory action research project exploring gender equity was conducted with 13 undergraduate student co-researchers on the rural campus of the university.

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