The start of the 2022 Women in Leadership (WiL) programme, designed to embolden senior academic women leaders, inspired a new cohort of participants with confidence that they were embarking on a great leadership journey this year.
The third cohort of University South Africa’s (USAf’s) Higher Education Leadership and Management’s (HELM) flagship programme, Women in Leadership 3 (WiL 3) 2022, kicked off on 25 May with a vibrant and dynamic online opening session.
Welcoming the women to the year-long programme of facilitated growth, Dr Oliver Seale (left), USAf’s Director of HELM said: “One of the things we learnt during CoVID-19 is to listen, to love and to learn.” The pandemic, he added, had provided time to be quiet, to reflect and to learn from others and from ourselves. “So, as you embark on this journey, I want to quote a tag line from Phillipe Chatrier grandstand at the Ronald Garros stadium, and I want you to take these words to heart: Victory belongs to the most tenacious.
“I wish you tenacity and that you be resolute and committed; that you embark on this exciting journey of self-discovery — discovery within this specific context: your position, your life, your profession, so you really enjoy the ride.
“It is important for you to invest in the programme, to take the much-needed time out and to enjoy the experience with the facilitators and the various presenters you will meet. Especially enjoy the time for reflection with yourself and your peers. The Higher Education context will become more equitable and fairer with more women leaders guiding the sector.”
Dr Seale explained that HELM was originally started in 2002. USAf formed a strategic partnership overseeing HELM with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in 2018. HELM is funded from a grant from the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme, and so is WiL. “It is a public service. We do not charge except for the contribution that your university will be making towards the coaching component,” he explained.
There are 36 women academic leaders in the WiL3 cohort. The group, pictured below, includes deans and vice deans, heads and deputy heads of departments and directors from 21 of USAf’s 26 member institutions across South Africa.
The WiL programme was introduced after a series of HELM’s research projects revealed that significant stereotyping of women persisted within the sector. At least 35% of women leaders noted gender bias, isolation and lack of support for women in middle management positions. So, one of the objectives of WiL is to embolden women in the male-dominated leadership structures to better understand the institutional cultures and power asymmetries found in a patriarchal workspace.
Professor Denise Zinn, the HELM Programme Leader for WiL and co-facilitator of the introductory session began by relaying well wishes from USAf’s leadership, namely Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s CEO, and Professor Sibongile Muthwa, USAf’s Chair and Vice Chancellor at Nelson Mandela University. Other wishes had come from Dr Muki Moeng, Executive Dean in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University, where the WiL is registered as a short learning programme.
Breaking the ice
Noting that music was an integral part of the process, Professor Zinn kicked off WiL3 with a song called This is How You Grow, by a South African singer/songwriter Tina Schouw. She asked the women leaders to listen with intent to find words within the song that resonated with them.
The session that followed saw the 36 women leaders introducing themselves by their full names, their designations and the institutions they represented. Said Professor Zinn: “You are the third WiL cohort and part of a network of over 100 women. As you get to know them you will find yourselves getting stronger and stronger, being able to impact the context in ways that make it more equitable for everyone.”
WiL aims and goals
Dr Birgit Schreiber (right), co-facilitator of the WiL programme, provided an overview and orientation to the programme’s multiple components. She outlined how the programme had run in the past two years, what the participants from earlier cohorts had found useful and what this cohort could expect in the months ahead. The objectives and goals of the programme, she said, highlighted the importance of women in leadership working to “advance diversity and develop a fair and equitable institutional environment”.
“Part of your role in WiL is to develop yourself as a woman leader, but also to take diversity and pluralism forward so that our institutions can thrive. The purpose is really for you to see how the context needs changing, and to look at the systems and structures within the context, to see how you can effect change in sustainable ways.”
One of the goals was to promote multiple perspectives, ways of being and doing and creating an enabling environment in which all can thrive. Dr Schreiber said WiL seeks to advance gender equity and leadership in the higher education sector by providing development opportunities for women in middle and senior leadership positions.
“It is about making sure that you, as women leaders, assume more senior roles. The more senior you are, the more you can change the system in sustainable ways towards a fair and equitable one,” Dr Schreiber said.
Another objective, Dr Schreiber said, was to expand the leadership pool, advancing and emboldening women to lead change in an extraordinarily complex higher education context. The sessions planned for the year would address this complexity as well as the dilemmas women deal with – like juggling multiple roles, responsibilities and actions, including the social-cultural and institutional conflicts that need to be addressed. “We must find our way through complex environments. As leaders, we must find ways for our teams, for ourselves and for higher education.”
fWhat the journey will entail
Throughout 2022, the women will have three-hour workshop sessions fortnightly that will, inter alia, feature guest speakers and thought leaders — all experts in higher education related to the session’s theme and focus. They will form peer-learning groups where they will help each other learn, reflect and grow throughout the programme and build a strong network that supports sustainable changes in the higher education sector.
There will also be individual coaching with qualified experienced coaches, where the women will be able to identify and work on goals, they set for themselves. “We have a very reflective approach to our work – a lot of reflective writing, group work and discussions, which all lead to a final submission of a portfolio of learning.” She said the women would learn how to lead from inside out as they are at the centre of driving this change.
“You will examine paradigms and purposes – how complex a higher education environment is and what your leadership can be or should be, looking at African leadership in that context.”
The programme would also deal with leadership in times of crises and explore how to navigate institutional cultures as well as power and politics. It would look at key missions: institutional success in terms of staff and students; teaching and learning, research and engagement – core missions of higher education and what it means for them on their leadership journey.
“Next, we will look at the range of knowledge and skills a leader needs to develop for working with people and leading teams in your environment – working with finances, seeing how the sector is funded as well as examining the policy environment.
“Then we will look at career planning and advancement, explore internationalisation, global and regional issues around Sustainable Development Goals and locating our higher education sector in the global context”.
The WiL programme concludes with a final reflection of the impact of the programme and gives the participants the time to complete a reflective ‘portfolio of learning’, a final requirement leading to a Nelson Mandela University-recognised short learning programme (SLP) certificate.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa