Women Academics Part of Masakhane Youth Leadership Course Panel Discussion
Two senior UKZN academics were part of the Masakhane Youth Leadership Course panel of women Professors which discussed challenges faced by women in leadership positions in front of an audience of about 200 young leaders from disadvantaged schools.
The academics were Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning, Professor Renuka Vithal, and Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities, Professor Cheryl Potgieter, who were joined by Research Director in the Education and Skills Development Programme Professor Thenjiwe Meyiwa of the Human Sciences Research Council.
The Masakhane Youth Leadership Course (MYLC), which is in its 13th year, is the flagship project of the Community Development Association (CDA) founded by Senior Lecturer and Cluster Leader in UKZN’s School of Education, Dr Thabo Msibi.
The course attracts close to 200 young leaders from disadvantaged schools from KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to the Edgewood campus for a week to learn about leadership. The MYLC is planned and facilitated by more than 60 students from UKZN and other South African tertiary institutions which are members and affiliates of the CDA.
Leaders from various sectors were invited to speak on a variety of subjects concerning leadership over the course’s seven days.
The core discussions for the Women Leaders’ Panel concerned the empowerment of young women as leaders and conscientising young men to be gender sensitive. The panel discussion was facilitated by Master’s student, Ms Nomzamo Nxumalo.
The questions guiding the panel discussion were: What is your definition of leadership? What are some of the challenges that you have faced as women leaders in your workplaces? What are some of the key issues young leaders, particularly women, should be conscious of as they develop their leadership skills?
Speaking at the event, Meyiwa described leadership as an interactive experience benefitting both the leader and the led. Potgieter emphasised the importance of recognising the potential for leadership in everyone, while Vithal conceptualised leadership as an action of service.
Asked about the challenges women in leadership positions faced, all three Professors agreed that the challenges differed according to the time and space a woman found herself in.
Potgieter spoke about leadership as not being not only perfection but encompassing intelligence, honesty and doing the correct thing. Part of leadership, she argued, was influencing the commitment of others towards achieving potential around a shared vision.
Potgieter supported this with statistics and data which showed that women were taught to equate leadership with perfection in ways men did not. ‘It is important that young women believe they are talented, that they do not need to be super perfect people to be leaders and their intelligence and integrity are the basis for them to be good leaders.’
Overcoming such challenges called for the push to actively challenge the “way things are”. Still on this trend, Vithal warned of the dangers of being “boxed” - being relegated to tasks outside one’s ambit based on the submissive position often ascribed to women.
Meyiwa brought to light the often underappreciated internal struggle faced by women leaders as they attempted to negotiate their way through often unfavourable systems. She stressed how trust in one’s ability worked as an invaluable tool to overcome this challenge.
The discussion raised issues of the diversity of people and how this inevitably led to the need for a fluid and contextual leadership paradigm. The panellists echoed each other on how women, particularly Black women, faced multiple-pronged challenges in leadership. Society’s failure to demarcate the limits of the domestic and the public with reference to women often led to the undermining of women leaders’ capabilities.
The panellists encouraged the identification of mentors as a source of inspiration and a point of reference for making it in spite of the slanted odds.
Potgieter expressed the importance of a can-do attitude and leading a balanced life because leadership should be enjoyed. Agency emerged as a powerful tool in successful leadership.
Vithal encouraged young leaders to take charge of their environments and not let convention dictate their ambition. ‘In the current context of high levels of gender violence it is important that men should be respectful to women and women leaders. What matters in leadership is the quality of ideas, the content of leadership and how the world can be changed for the better through leadership.’
Speaking to the packed lecture hall of Grade 11 learners she further added, ‘Be conscious of your own attitude as a person and a leader. Before you can lead anyone else, you should be able to direct your own life. Demonstrate and lead by example.’
Engaging with the panel, a young woman in the audience shared her journey to discovering her independence and strength as a woman while another urged her peers to become a new breed of young women, seeking to encourage and boost others.
The panel discussion evoked excitement in the audience who could not get enough of the Professors’ wisdom. By the end of the session their confidence in their potential was electrifyingly palpable.
Melissa Mungroo and Nomzamo Nxumalo
Photograph by Melissa Mungroo