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Enabling and empowering women in leadership, the case of South African universities

17 Aug 2020 | Oliver Seale As part of the women’s month celebrations in South Africa, Oliver Seale, Director of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at Universities South Africa shares his insights on the launch of their Women in Leadership (WiL) programme on 1 September 2020, supported by Advance HE.

Crisis what crisis

South African higher education is in transition and grappling with major challenges arising from global and local development imperatives. With a global disruption like the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also facing a leadership crisis which requires an altogether different response. The fault lines in our leadership have been brutally exposed during the pandemic and we need a response that is attuned to complexity, transformation, pluralism on the one hand and performativity and efficiency on the other.  

A critical role in addressing the current challenges is played by women leaders. Gender equity and women’s access to executive and management positions in universities is a major challenge on the African continent, and especially at the executive level in South Africa.

At the HELM of leadership

In South Africa, the notion of university leadership has been expanded to include a wider audience, like Heads of Academic Departments, Heads of Academic Schools, Deans, and Deputies as well as Administrative Leadership, such as Registrars and Faculty Managers. It is for these reasons of advancing management (with an emphasis on performativity and efficiency) and leadership (with a focus on pluralism and transformation) that Universities South Africa (USAf) developed and implemented its Higher Educational Leadership and Management (HELM) programme. The aim of HELM is to advance leadership in the sector and it has developed a specific Women in Leadership (WiL) programme to enable, empower and advance women leadership.

Where there’s a WiL

WiL is mandated to address leadership issues focussing on women’s professional development and advancement in the system, while addressing issues of transformation. The goals of WiL is to equip women leaders to impact the leadership context in collaborative ways and to advance engaged, collective and shared strategic objectives within their respective institutions and across the higher education sector.

WiL is a six-month programme and virtually launches on the first day of Spring, 1 September 2020, a time of renewal and rejuvenation, in South Africa. It comprises a number of leadership and management sessions based on a training needs analysis, coaching and mentoring and a study visit to the United Kingdom. With 26 participants at various levels of seniority, it is hoped that WiL will grow into an enduring network of women empowered to renew the sector.

Advance HE is contributing to the WiL programme with a series of ‘She Leads’ workshops. These workshops are designed to explore what leadership means in HE today, the leadership context within which the participants operate and the opportunities and challenges for South African women aspiring to lead in HE.

Assistant Director (International) at Advance HE, Becky Smith said: “We hope this is the start of a broader collaboration with HELM and USAf to support the advancement of women leaders in South African HE.”


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