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Women in academia carve niche

As the “world turns,” the African continent celebrated the African Women’s month last month.  In Lesotho the celebration took place at a time when at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) we return to start a new academic year.

This is when we take the opportunity to also salute and honour women in academia.

These are heroes doing it the women’s way when  for “nine months” (mid-August to May) every year, individually and collectively with our fellow men, we carry through, guide and nurture thousands of students; and every “ninth” month in September, they deliver the girls and boys to the world!

Also worth celebrating at NUL are more milestones achieved in the advancement of higher education in Lesotho and in the region.

To start with, NUL is an equal opportunity institution where females and males access education and employment on equal terms.

Therefore, all of the women of NUL are valued students, workers as well as leaders wherever their space is located in the institution!

Around the globe and in Lesotho, gender equality has made great strides and as women become more academically inspired and successful, that by itself changes the gender landscape and gender relations.

In this regard, NUL women have made remarkable progression which did not exist more than a decade ago and we are now celebrating, especially that:

The majority of students are females constituting 60 percent (2012/13) and predominantly in six out of eight faculties, including IEMS.

More than half of all staff is female representing 51 percent of academic staff and 54 percent of non-academic or non-teaching staff, respectively.

Women have attained and are also taking on leadership and management positions: the Vice Chancellor Professor Sharon Siverts; two professors (15 percent of the total number at that rank but 50 percent of all local professors) Malillo Machobane and Matelu Moloi; four or 40 percent of associate professors are women; They are: Associate Professors ’Manthoto Lephoto, Matšeliso Moshoeshoe Chadzingwa,  ’Matora Ntimo-Makara and ’Mantoa Sekota who is also the first and only Mosotho woman professor in science.

Some few women have broken into supervisory, headship and deanship roles

Up to 45 percent of all PhD holders are female, notably in the Faculty of Education where there is 50/50 representation. More women than men have recently attained their PhDs; Dr Bothepane Makhakhane, Dr Lifelile Matsoso, Dr Pulane Lefoka, Dr ’Mamotsamai Ranneileng and Dr Motšelisi Mokhethi, Dr. Makhala Khoeli.

Five women sit in the recently inaugurated 12th Council which is the highest decision-making body of the university.

Undoubtedly this is not enough.

There is still more to be done, more to be achieved and definitely more to celebrate in years to come to beat the 50/50 gender equality target of 2015!

But this requires drastic action as we are still experiencing serious challenges.

While it is true that cultural and structural constraints limit the women’s mobility to leadership, it is also true that constructions and values of leadership in contemporary higher education (and more broadly) are — from a feminist perspective — not so woman-friendly.

The women as is the case in other institutions continue to battle to break into senior positions, performing and staying there because there are still glass ceilings and chilly climates threatening the women’s way. This is due to existing gender stereotypes that are typical of the Basotho gender system, inequality, strife and unending  sexual violence.  On the other  hand, poor gender relations, the masculine culture of the organisation and subtle barriers for women to gain recognition and space into higher positions and ranks of leadership and decision making, and realising gender mainstreaming into higher education in line with the Ministry of Education and Training’s strategic plan.

Women are frustrated by not having their efforts to lead and manage fully or if at all recognised and appreciated or rewarded in promotion criteria as they seemingly may not always conform to the acceptable structural and cultural of the university.

These call for an urgent transformation of the male value system into a modern day university.

But this is not easy to change without drastic action.

Be that as it may,  we have since the beginning of the year started dialogue on the issues, challenges and strategies to tackle them. Women’s narratives on their lives and leadership experiences from this discourse point to, among other things, that we need to celebrate all women for leadership comes in many ways and is not only attained through  a position.

In their work environment the women of NUL play leading and managing roles all the time. Women do not necessarily have to always follow conventional ways of doing things, but to also bring in “the woman’s way”.

This is line with feminist critiques drawing attention to the more complex and nuanced ways that women exercise formal and informal leadership and advocate more holistic and unconventional approaches to gaining and “doing” leadership.

It was revealed at our dialogue that not all women are or have become effective “leaders” (be they students or workers) in the traditional (male) model, but also in the woman’s way by drawing from their female attributes, social roles, tenacity, among others.

These views have come out in some powerful, inspiring and wise women’s voices from the valley; regarding the women on their everyday study and work experiences providing all of us women with the following lessons to succeed:

“Draw from women’s cultural roles as organisers, managers and supervisors of households and playing (successfully) playing the act of balancing academic and family responsibilities”

  • Do not underestimate the power and support of sisterhood . . . see potential in others and unleash” a “make your office a home for others”
  • Inspire yourself and . . . change your attitude to better your life and skills
  • Avoid “the Queen Bee syndrome” . . . Publish not  to perish
  • Have mentors in your profession (and) learn to turn lemon into lemonade
  • (Women) should learn as they work and be role models to others
  • Work comes first so that one can claim what is rightfully hers or his
  • Being sensitive to challenging campus gender stereotypes . . . Encourage women to speak up and report any abuse
  • Not taking for granted (NUL) women’s talent and resourcefulness

While we celebrate doing things our way, let’s be aware that being women achievers and having a presence in higher positions is not enough unless accompanied by the ability to change the way people think about what is possible and the capacity to work with others to achieve at least some measure of change.

To be an achiever or leader is not being in a position but more what one does with it. This implicitly points to great expectations of and by all NUL women to “deliver” more in years to come.

Already our women leaders in higher education namely:

Minister Mosothoane, Principal Secretary Thabana, Vice Chancellor Siverts, and Lutaru President Mokhethi — have “delivered” NUL from the recent past challenges facing the institution.

Was it or was it not doing it the women’s way of demonstrating female leadership advantage and capability?

With the support and collaboration of our men we can achieve, making all women at NUL heroines worthy of awards in the “academia” category of women achievers.

Wishing all the women and men a belated Happy African Women’s Month. Watch the space on the count-down to 2015!


  • Matšeliso Mapetla is a gender scholar, senior lecturer and researcher in Political and Administrative Studies at the National University of Lesotho.

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