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17 April 2024 | Story André Damons | Photo Kaleidoscope
Women Advancement Programme launch 2024
Distinguished guests and esteemed speakers gathered for the launch of the Women’s Academic Advancement Programme on 5 April 2024 on the Bloemfontein Campus.

A new initiative by the University of the Free State (UFS) is set to ensure that women academics at the university have equal opportunities for advancement. It will focus, amongst other things, on challenging long standing systemic biases – both explicit and implicit – that have historically disadvantaged women in higher education.

The Women’s Academic Advancement Programme was launched on Friday (5 April) during an event which was attended by Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and principal of the UFS; Prof Vasu Reddy, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Internationalisation; Prof Anthea Rhoda, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic; and Dr Molapo Qhobela, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Change, Strategic Partnerships and Societal Impact. Prof Relebohile Moletsane, professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Social Cohesion) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal who holds the JL Dube Chair Rural Education in the university’s School of Education was the guest speaker.

Celebrating women’s contribution

In welcoming the guests, Prof Petersen said the launch of this commendable programme marks a celebration of the contribution of women colleagues to the scholarly excellence at the university and that the programme will impact on the career progression of women academics and raise the profile of women, especially women academics at the UFS.

“An advantage of the programme is that it requires us as an institution to reflect on the socio-economic, the structural, and the workplace obstacles women so often encounter. This programme is a significant indicator of our institutional commitment to support women academics who often navigate a combination of challenging demands and commitments in their professional and personal lives.

“In addressing the challenges to women academic advancement, we will contribute to the creation of a more conducive work environment and institutional culture for all of us. Indeed, it is about the rising tide lifts all boats – that is the idea of this programme. By providing mentorship, networking opportunities and professional development, this programme aims to empower women academics to thrive in their academic careers,

leading to a more inclusive, innovative academic environment for everyone,” said Prof Petersen.

According to him, by increasing the representation of women in academia at all levels of management, and in the academic hierarchy, the diversity of perspectives, ideas and approaches in research, teaching and leadership will be enhanced. It also increases the pool of female academics both in the university and Higher Education sector.

The diversity, Prof Petersen continued, will foster innovation and creativity, and will result in more robust scholarship and academic outcomes. Importantly, women who succeed in academia, serve as role models and mentors for future generations of scholars, as well as inspiring and supporting other women in pursuing academic careers. This mentorship is essential for overcoming barriers and for navigating the challenges that women might face in the academic context.

According to Prof Petersen, women advancement programmes such as these will help address this imbalance and will aid in retaining talented women researchers and lecturers in academic careers. He said prioritising women advancement in academia is not only a matter of social justice and equality, two of the guiding principles of the UFS Vision 130, but it is also essential for driving progress, innovation, and excellence in higher education and beyond.

Prof Petersen also pledged the collective support of the executive management of the rectorate for the programme and to increase the research productivity, impact, and influence of women academics participating in this programme.

“Let us remember that collective directed efforts do matter. By championing diversity, equity and inclusivity, we not only empower women to thrive in academia, but we will also enrich our institution. Together let’s continue to break barriers, shatter stereotypes and pave the way for the future where every academic regardless of their gender has the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”

The Vice-Chancellor implored all deans, senior members of staff, and heads of department to encourage their emerging and promising colleagues to apply to be part of a truly important initiative and to become part of this first cohort. The call for participation was already opened in March.

High attrition rate of black women in higher education

Prof Moletsane talked about coloniality and the legacy of the British empire and what it left us with. “Not only in terms of racial inequality but with gender inequality as well. As well as other inequalities. This legacy endures even today, post-1994”

She encouraged everybody to look at the enduring legacy of apartheid in the higher education system everywhere in the country and world by asking what historical and cultural events brought us here. It is true, she said, that the number of women has increased, and in particular the number of black women in academia, but she highlighted the high attrition rate of black women in higher education. She wondered if academic leaders, vice-chancellors and deans are turning a blind eye to the fact that black women are leaving academia after staying for short periods of time. “Why is that we are not asking the right questions?” she said.

Prof Moletsane also talked about various interventions to assist early-career scholars at institutions that are not always coherent and well-coordinated. She emphasised the importance of sustainable support for programmes to ensure a lasting impact on the capacity of early-career scholars.

She discussed a case study of a sustainable, impactful intervention for female academics at UKZN, called The Neoliberalism, Gender and Curriculum Transformation in Higher Education: Feminist Decoloniality as Care (FemDAC). The programme involved collaboration between colleagues from UKZN (PI); DUT; Stellenbosch. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (PI) and University of New Mexico which was funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation over a period of six years.

Prof Moletsane’s lecture was followed by a presentation by Prof Liezel Lues, the Project Manager of the Women’s Academic Advancement Programme. She said the purpose of the programme is to address the significant underrepresentation of female colleagues amongst the UFS professoriate and rated researchers through deliberate, personalised academic mentoring interventions to increase the pipeline of female scholars who are research productive and have impact as leading scholars to contribute to a UFS research culture of excellence and impact. The target group of the Women’s Academic Advancement Programme is women in the mid-career stage of their careers who want to improve their scholarly impact and professional excellence.

Milestone and turning point

Prof Reddy, closed the event by emphasising that the initiative is a milestone and a turning point which will help the university to drive not just Vision 130, but also a social justice project within the broader context of the university.

“This is about how we create a real equitable workforce that brings people together. The Women’s Academic Advancements Programme is really about providing those deeper opportunities, but I think also deepening the experience to play a leading role in academic leadership. It’s going to be critical, not just for NRF rating and the career trajectory of the individuals but also for the broader academic leadership of the university,” he said.

Prof Reddy concluded by saying it is important that the programme is not about an adjective project, but about a deep integration and recognising that women are not afterthoughts.

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