Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

What women want

with 12 comments


An infographic pinned to the wall of our office lift last week shows the large discrepancy between male and female appointments at different levels of the university. At the top, women are significantly underrepresented; only 4 of the 23 members (17%) of Council and only 61 of the 256 Senate members (24%) are women. At the administrative level, men are in the minority. But the issue really is at the top: A recent article by Xolela Mangcu of UCT’s Department of Sociology in City Press makes the case for both more black and female professors at South African universities. The article notes that only “194 black or African South Africans are professors out of the country’s total of 4 000. This number translates to 4% of the total. The situation is more dire when it comes to women. Only 34 or 0.85% of the total number of South African professors are women.”

Mangcu’s plea for greater equality confuses gender and racial inequality. These two are not the same, and their origins are also very different. I’ll focus on gender. Mangcu was referring to black female professors, of which there is only 34, a low 1.5% of all full professors. AfricaCheck* redid Mangcu’s calculations and it turns out there are 534 female out of a total of 2174 full professors in South Africa, or 25.6%. While it suggests that Stellenbosch is very much on par with what is happening in the rest of the country, it does seem as though women are significantly underrepresented as professors in South Africa.

The critique is labelled against universities, but it is even more valid for the private sector. As an experiment, consider South African businesses that are part of Business Leadership South Africa, an “independent association whose members represent South African big business leadership and major multinational investors”. Of the 76 member companies listed on their website, which include nearly all of South Africa’s largest companies, only 14.4% has a woman in charge. That is 11 percentage points less than the number of women professors in South African universities (25.6%).

It seems like there is no reason to smile if equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions is what we are aiming for. But is equal numbers really the aim? What exactly do we mean when we say we want gender equality? Do we hope to see equal numbers of men and women in all professions? Do we hope to see, for example, equal numbers of men and women at university Senate level, but also at administrative level? Or is gender equality something else? Is gender equality perhaps not the ability of every man and every woman, regardless of their gender, to face the same barriers to entry, the same salary, the same leave, the same career opportunities? If that is true, is gender representation the best way to measure gender equality? What if the median woman have a greater propensity to choose a career that offers her more free time? What if the median woman have a greater propensity to choose a career that has a greater social impact, however defined? What if the median woman chooses to spend more time at home with her children, not because she is forced to but because she actually wants to?

This last question is tricky, right. Because perhaps our long history of unequal relations (at least since the Neolithic Revolution 10000 years ago) has ingrained in all of us the idea that women are better carers and men are better providers, where in reality there might not be such a large biological difference. Yet for the purpose of my argument, whether these preferences are because of genetics or cultural heritage doesn’t really matter. I think we can all agree that the median women has a higher likelihood of not ‘leaning in’, as Sheryl Sandberg writes.

So why this fetish of 50%? Why would we expect to see equal numbers in all professions? What if women are better learners, better connectors or better communicators? What if they work harder at university (and are therefore more likely, ceteris paribus, to become professors than, say, CEOs), live longer, or make better investments? Do we expect to see equal numbers of men and women in all occupations, in all ranks of corporate life, or do we simply want to ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender, has the opportunity to move into whatever occupation or rank or lifestyle they choose? If we choose the latter, we won’t be able to use the ratio of male to female professors and claim injustice, simply because it could signal either discrimination or preference, and we won’t be able to know which.

So how can we identify discrimination, then? Wages and salaries are a good start. Women and men should earn equal pay for equal work, and where this is not happening, the law should step in. But even this could be tricky. Should the (male) players in the Springbok rugby team earn similar salaries to the female players of the women’s team? Both represent their country, and both presumably put in equal effort. But the men’s team create a far larger income for SA Rugby, of course, so I suspect they also earn more. Other benefits, I would argue, should be equal too, like parental leave. Why is it that women get 4 months and men only 3 days? Is that not unfair? In Sweden, which ranks as one of the most gender-egalitarian countries, men and women often get an equal period of time off for parental duties. That not only seems fair, but it also affects the incentives companies face when they hire. Why would you prefer to employ men to women who are nearing child-bearing years when both are ‘penalised’ equally? (I wrote about this last year.)

This is not to deny that there are many places where women are held back simply because they are women, where stereotypes about a women’s place in society exclude their participation. I suspect that much of this is disappearing. Nevertheless, the legacies of past discrimination against female appointments will persist for some time to come (especially in universities, where staff turnover is very low), but new appointments at lower levels certainly reflect more female participation. At Stellenbosch, there are more females than males in Lecturer and Junior Lecturer positions, for example.

So at what stage, one has to ask, is gender no longer a consideration in new appointments? Will this happen only when we have at an equal share of men and women as full professors? Isn’t that a bit paternalistic, a bit social engineery?

Gender equality is not about a fixed ratio of 50% women and 50% men in all spheres of society. That ignores personal preferences, tastes, and choices. A society where we strive for a perfect 50% gender balance everywhere is a society where men and women have lost the agency to act in their own interests.

* Even AfricaCheck’s numbers are slightly wrong. They note that 21 of the 2174 professors’ race is listed as unknown. They claim it’s 0.1% of the total. It is 1%, of course.

12 Responses

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  1. I agree that people should be appointed based on merit. There should be equal opportunity for everyone. Discrimination is however very real in many workplaces and does need to be addressed. Corporate policies need to be in place to prevent unethical behaviour and promote respect among employees. Performance needs to be evaluated to make sure people are placed in the right positions, regardless of gender, race or age.


    October 15, 2014 at 20:54

  2. My definition of gender equality is not the equal representation of men and women in the workplace but rather equal opportunity to enter the workplace. I firmly belief that the candidate who is most qualified should be the one who is hired in the end. We should move forward from all the discrimination and inequality of the past. Instead of looking at gender and nationality before making the decision of who the best candidate would be, we should look at what really matters the qualifications and experience. In order to rectify inequalities of the past emphasis should be placed on education and training to assist previously disadvantaged groups to compete equally.

    Marne Kruger

    October 12, 2014 at 15:38

  3. […] Gouws responded in today’s Cape Times to my blog post of August 29, which later appeared in the Cape Times under the regrettably misleading heading “Gender […]

  4. One cannot ignore the primordial problem of gender inequality in South Africa, that are evident from those statistics. Inasmuch as South Africa’s development has spurted growth in the economic sector of the country, there are still many social factors that need to be taken care of, namely the aforementioned point. Just as racial inequality is being addressed in sport and business alike; gender equality should top the agenda of an “equal-opportunity” South Africa. What does “equality” mean though? I know that having a 50% split of both genders in any work place is to say the least, unrealistic, and somewhat unfair to those who are qualified for certain positions. This addresses another issue of reversed discrimination and quotas systems. An article published two years ago by the Democratic Alliance party (, states that they for one, will not accept gender quotas in their party saying;

    “The DA’s approach to diversity is not based on top-down manipulation of electoral lists. It is based on a commitment to developing a genuinely diverse slate of candidates based on merit. The Leader of our party is not the Leader because she is a woman. She is the Leader because the party believes she is the best person for the job.”

    I whole heartily agree with this statement. The only way forward in the nation’s development, in terms of social and economic development, is if we allow for the best and most qualified individuals to take positions they are worthy of occupying, be it male or female. Now that is gender equality!

    S. Lakhani-u14034680

    October 5, 2014 at 13:01

    • If we do not address the issue of inequality of OPPORTUNITY, then giving equal opportunity to “the best and most qualified individuals to take positions they are worthy of occupying, be it male or female,” will mean we’ll never come close to equal representation. Like whites, males have had unfair advantages that they don’t even recognise; until such time as that is no longer the case, we have to go slightly beyond leveling the playing fields – for example, as is the case with all employment equity situations, if two equally qualified candidates present themselves, one male and one female, the position MUST go to the woman. Let us bear in mind just how bad the situation is: this year, 4.8% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. This is not a tiny skewing; this is a disgrace.
      And dear Philip Copeman: how many of those men who published so much more than women had wives who took care of their clean socks and their children’s extra-murals, hmm? If the playing fields really were level on the score of taking responsibility for the production of the next generation of citizens, taxpayers and academics, perhaps female academics would be better placed to publish, publish, publish! This is a truism, ffs. There’s plenty of research out there showing clearly how wildly disadvantaged women scholars are. Get real.


      October 5, 2014 at 15:56

      • I agree with what you say…Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that in order to create a level playing field for women in all career fields, maybe there needs to be some preferential treatment in this regard. But, I do also believe, as a woman myself, that in the long-run this thinking is not sustainable. We need to put in place people who know what they are doing in high positions…Don’t take me wrong, I do think woman are fit and knowledgeable enough to enter into top positions, as I hope to accomplish great things too. All I’m saying is I rather know I’m successful because of what I bring to the table, rather than know the only reason I’m in this position is because I’m female.


        October 6, 2014 at 12:54

  5. Its not that difficult to understand – just add up the journals’ published list if articles and compare the gender stats. I am sure it mirrors the senior appointments. If women want a higher share of the position, the solution is simple – publish or perish. Pointing out the inequality adds little value to the solution.

    Philip Copeman

    August 29, 2014 at 11:48

  6. I think the stark choices that households with young children face between fulfilling, challenging and lucrative jobs and raising happy children is a space where I hope there will be more innovation in the years to come. At the moment there has not been much thought given to this because the traditional solution is one person (often male) works as if he is single and has no other responsibilities, while the other adult (often female) devotes a large proportion of her time to caring for the children. But I think this is suboptimal because then kids are raised largely by one parent (who is likely to be bored and frustrated on most days due to lack of adult company), while the other parent is superstressed because he/she is the so-called breadwinner and whole family is dependent on his/her career and salary. I think this is partly what lurks behind the low numbers of females entering senior management positions. It is partly a question of divisibility of jobs and maximizing flexibility. It will add complexity to HR management, but there may be large social benefits.


    August 29, 2014 at 08:58

  7. Yes, let’s aim at parity. Like most feminists, I want to see a world in which the playing fields are as level as possible – and THEN let people make their own choices. Let’s give male professors an equal amount of parental leave when they have a child – but then let’s also require of them that they take equal responsibility for that child for the next 20 years. Let it not be automatically required that a woman scientist leaves her work bubbling in the lab because little Sipho’s kindergarten called and said he had a temperature and a rash. Let it not be the wife who is expected to drop her classes and rush over to the old age home when her husband’s mother has a fall.
    Let a male academic, in the throes of putting together an article for publication in the Lancet, have to take his turn walking the sick child up and down and sitting in a steamy bathroom while he coughs and coughs and coughs. Let’s not think about making it easier for the woman – let’s think about, in effect, making it harder for the man – make it accepted throughout society that he takes as much strain for the children, the family and the home as his partner, wife or ex-wife.
    I was at my doctor recently when the nursery school called to say she’d not picked up her kids. She blanched and frenziedly sorted it out – but then explained that she and her busy husband had discussed, but not concluded, who would fetch the kids. When it came down to it, who got the call? Whose busy day was interrupted?
    There will not be equality until such time as these burdens are understood to be the man’s as much as the woman’s, and until we have equal pay for equal work – where men don’t get 20% more than women for the same job (come on, rugby is so not a good example – how about ad executives, financial managers, janitors, journalists, merchandisers…) and where men don’t get a promotion simply because they have a different arrangement of reproductive organs.


    August 29, 2014 at 08:34

    • yet the stratospheric success of free market capitalism is based on the notion of labour specialisation. If both parents are equally responsible for all the aspects of running a household and rearing children, doesn’t that just lead to mediocrity all round? – planning glitches mentioned above with neither spouse able to focus on their career 100%..


      November 9, 2014 at 16:39

  8. I must then be interested in the wrong subjects because it appears that in those disciplines there is an almost complete female dominance (in one section the only male is one black male on the roll )

    I can specify in detail the relevant departments and staff complement if anyone is interested ?


    August 29, 2014 at 08:34

  9. I bet those professors’ mothers know their sons’ race – so 1% is pushing it.


    August 29, 2014 at 08:15

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