Reflect and learn as a leader and change agent at your own institution

The sound of the late Tina Turner’s What’s love got to do with it enveloped the conference room. As the last few individuals took up their seats, the rhythmic movement of those already seated, in tandem with the singer’s movements on the screen in front, suggested approval.

This was the opening scene on Tuesday, 20 June, at the launch of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) Women in Leadership (WiL) Programme, offered in a hybrid format (in person and online) on the East Rand in Gauteng.

In welcoming the 41 attendees, 11 of whom were virtually linked, Professor Denise Zinn, HELM Programme Leader, stated that her choice of this song was deliberate. “I chose this song to inspire each one of you gathered here today, to change your attitude and tune. After this [WiL] encounter, everyone must, like Tina Turner, hold their head high as they walk self-assuredly into those boardrooms.”

Also welcoming the WiL Class of 2023, Dr Oliver Seale (left), HELM’s Director, told the 41 attendees that they were joining a dynamic group of 90 illustrious higher education professionals and WiL alumni on an exciting journey “that is growing in leaps and bounds, and impacting on our higher education landscape.”

Having started WiL during the CoViD-19 era in 2020 made the launch of this fourth cohort an even more joyous occasion, he said.

“By nature, people are gregarious beings. We like to look people in the eye as we engage with them. You are here to enhance your knowledge, capabilities, and experience, which, in its totality, will change how you view yourself as a leader in future. This is a life-changing experience.”

WiL is evidence-led
Professor Denise Zinn (right), a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, assured the new cohort that this intervention had resulted from needs identified in heads of schools, heads of academic departments and deans who had undergone HELM’s Foundations of Leadership/ Management training over time from 2018 to 2019. Working in male-dominated environments, the women leaders often said they felt isolated, overwhelmed and ill-equipped to cope in their leadership positions, hence expressing a need for tailored capacity development that would embolden them to address the patriarchal structures that maintain gender asymmetries in higher education.

Dr Seale added that in his PhD research that inspired the book Deanship in the Global South; Bridging Troubled Waters (2020), less than 10% of people in universities’ leadership said they had been inducted into that role. “You get thrown into the deep end, where you are left to swim, or sink.” He said he wished he could be optimistic enough to believe that universities had reached stability in the present-day. In addition to remaining embroiled in daily firefighting, universities’ executive leadership remained male-dominated – a fact evident in women forming less than 30% of the sector’s leadership. “This means we need to act on these imbalances and change the gendered nature of leadership in South African Higher Education.

An emboldening experience
He said this was a global phenomenon, necessitating women’s empowerment programmes even in far more established university systems. “These programmes are deliberately designed to embolden women to take their place as leaders with confidence and help to change the patriarchal structures and systems.”

Professor Zinn had asked the participants whether anyone felt sceptical about a women-only development programme, to which an individual from the Tshwane University of Technology responded with another question: “Where do we draw a line between equipping women and risking affirming the perception that they cannot assume leadership on their own, without support? Does this programme not put women under added pressure to prove themselves – and perhaps perpetuate the stereotype that they lead from a premise of deficiency?”

Zinn agreed that to some extent, this intervention is a paradox. “But I can assure you, WIL is not here because you are considered deficient. We believe that in a male-dominated space, women are often excluded from important decision-making that affects them. WiL creates a safe space for free exchange of ideas. Although women are in the majority in higher education, they become a minority, the higher up you go in the leadership ranks. What is considered good leadership is based on patterns of men’s behaviours in work environments – which include long hours at work, international travel, inflexibility that does not consider women’s responsibilities — in other words, an institutional culture that suits men, so much so that women feel alienated in leadership positions.”

The professor went on to say she was always amazed by the calibre of women she was seeing in all WiL cohorts, who were coming in with all sorts of baggage, such as “an impostor syndrome and constant self-doubt, wondering, ‘was I appointed to fill a quota’, or ‘am I equipped to do this job?’” She said this was typical of women operating in male-dominated spaces.

She then asked: “Whose responsibility is it to change that culture? I liked it when Birgit [Dr Schreiber, another HELM Programme Leader] called this an emboldening space, empowering women to say, and do things differently, more inclusively. This programme enables women to take up their space and be active players in changing their institutional cultures.”

Another participant, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said “just by listening to your introduction, I get a sense that all or most women joining this programme think they are less. Less in comparison to who, and to what? This is usually to males. Then I ask myself: what causes that? I, personally, do not think that way. Perhaps it is unfair to put us all into one box because I’m not there. I am in a comfortable space and feel authentically ready to offer who I am.”

In their Peer Learning Groups, the women leaders will share experiences drawn from their diverse backgrounds and contexts and learn from and encourage one another.
Professor Zinn agreed. “This programme recognises those unique personalities. We were all socialised differently. That is where Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) come in, where different personalities cross-pollinate, and offer encouragement to each other.” Dr Birgit Schreiber would later explain that the PLGs had been constituted with diversity in mind: considering racial classifications, disciplines, positions, geographical location, and institution-types, to give programme participants an opportunity to network across institutions, for optimal learning from a diversity of thoughts and experiences across the sector.

“All the programmes we run, the SASS [Student Affairs and Student Success], Foundations of Leadership and WIL, have shown us that women engage differently when there are men in the room,” Professor Zinn continued. “Personally, I speak up, and that earned me a label of “fierce” at the institutions where I have worked. We are all characterised by how we come across in group situations. All these kinds of issues will be addressed in this programme, with learning materials that are uploaded onto Canvas, our Learning Management System.”

The 41 participants in the WiL Class of 2023 represent 20 public universities across South Africa. Drawn from a variety of disciplines, the attendees are a mixture of academic leaders and managers, heads of departments, deans, their deputies as well as directors of schools and academic divisions.

WiL as a leadership programme
Professor Zinn said they had assessed WiL against the attributes of a successful leadership programme as published in a February 2023 edition of the Harvard Business Review. According to Yemiscigil et al, enabling effective leadership programmes:

Focus on whole-person development
Create opportunities for self-reflection and meaning formation
Target acutely stressed leaders
Are short and intensive
Acknowledge psychological barriers to growth
Ensure that the intervention leads to sustained growth and impact and
Embrace online learning.
Professor Zinn said WiL checks all the boxes.

In Dr Oliver Seale’s words, the WiL programme was designed to respond to a national context of policy uncertainty, diminishing resources, shifting governance dynamics and structural race, class, and geographical inequalities – among numerous challenges.

This context required that a social justice leadership practice be inculcated in South Africa’s universities, that promotes equity of rights, opportunities, access, participation, voice, and recognition for all participants; that acknowledges structures in and outside the organisation that cause marginalisation, and that is willing to actively demolish structures and policies that cause oppression. This was the type of leadership that the HELM programme subscribed to and was inculcating in the WiL programme, Dr Seale asserted.

The HELM Director repeated that “We cannot offer generic (cut and paste) solutions. Our offerings must be bespoke and context specific. We need to build a pipeline for future deans, and DVCs etc. who contribute to building more nurturing and enabling leadership environments. As encapsulated in our Managed Organisational Leadership Development (MOLD) model, most importantly, we must reflect and learn, and then lead change – that’sour approach in HELM.”

To that, Professor Zinn added that WiL was modelled on a humanising pedagogy, that works with what people bring into the learning environment, has a liberatory focus, seeks to put people at ease, is intentional in its approach and allows participants to think, and to breathe. “This is your time to breathe,” she assured the 41-strong class of 2023. “You get to exhale here. I hope you will enjoy it.”

That, notwithstanding, Dr Seale unequivocally stated that this was a demanding programme requiring hard work and sustained investment. “What you get out will depend on what you put in,” Dr Seale concluded.

A snapshot of programme overview
The opening session was an opportunity for the participants to meet and get to know one another, to be familiarised with the programme, the coaching component, and to be introduced to their peer learning groups. Henceforth, WiL would unfold in fortnightly sessions of three-hour workshops each, led by the co-facilitators Dr Birgit Schreiber (right) and Professor Denise Zinn. Guest speakers, all leaders drawing on their wealth of experience, will also be brought in from the sector to enrich the online sessions.

The programme incorporates a dedicated period of reflection, discussions, writing and a series of assignments leading to a portfolio of learning that participants will compile towards the end. The coaching component will include six individual coaching sessions over the next few months, with peer learning groups meeting in between the formal learning sessions. In total, this course will span over six months culminating in a final two-day in-person retreat.

The WiL programme is registered as a short learning programme (SLP) with Nelson Mandela University’s Faculty of Education. The SLP certification ceremony will be held at Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communications.