20 February 2019 | Story Nadine Lake | Photo Rulanzen Martin
Dr Nadine Lake
Dr Nadine Lake, Gender Studies Programme Director and Lecturer, Centre for Gender and Africa Studies (CGAS).

Opinion article was written by Dr Nadine Lake from the UFS Centre for Gender and Africa Studies for #WorldDayofSocialJustice on 20 February.


To reflect on gender equality in higher education means to consider how race politics have often taken precedence over gender issues. Race has historically been regarded the most visible descriptor of inequality, and student movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall pointed out that inequalities based on race and colonial histories continue to influence wider access to higher education in South Africa. These debates have, however, resulted in a certain type of marginalisation and isolation of gender issues. This single treatment of racial inequality was challenged by a minority of students who formed part of the #RhodesMustFall movement at the University of Cape Town, making it clear that the movement was strongly underpinned by intersectionality and representative of identity markers such as gender and sexuality, for broader inclusion of historically marginalised voices. Student politics and protest action thus reflect the broader concerns of slow economic, race, gender, and class transformation in the South African political and educational arena. 

Engagement on the topic of gender equality in higher education is often limited to the myopic view that we have witnessed increased numbers of female graduates at South African universities. The problem with a sole focus on numbers of female graduates is the failure to mention that these numbers are seldom reflected in postgraduate studies, and furthermore, that much smaller numbers of these graduates enter into politically and financially competitive careers compared to their male counterparts. Stereotypes hinging on male- and female-specific career trajectories are reproduced, with female students consistently constituting larger numbers in the humanities and social sciences, while male students dominate in the fields of engineering, mathematics, science, and information technologies. In her poignant analysis of gender equality in African higher-education contexts, renowned feminist and academic Amina Mama foregrounds the importance of higher education for the transformation of knowledge and personnel in a developing context. Mama argues that, “Despite the broader patterns of gender inequality persisting in the tertiary sector, public higher education also remains the main route to career advancement for women in Africa. Their (women’s) constrained access, therefore, poses a constraint to the pursuit of more equitable and just modes of political, economic, and social development”. Mama makes a direct link between higher education, career advancement for women, and the equitable development of societies; something to remember as we reflect on the importance of women’s access to, and influence in higher-education spaces. 

As we enter our 25th year of democracy, it is important to move beyond a reflection of our achievements and to provide legitimate recognition to those who have been historically marginalised by male-centric establishments of higher education. Student movements have furthermore highlighted the need to move beyond race-specific politics, and to engage critically with gender-equity issues at South African universities. To conclude, women’s access and advancement in higher education remains a reliable barometer for the achievement of social justice and development in South Africa. 



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