Can South Africa Teach Us a Lesson in Fixing Educational Gender Gaps?

Can South Africa Teach Us a Lesson in Fixing Educational Gender Gaps?

The legacy of decades of apartheid-era laws that mandated women be paid less than men have contributed to South Africa's education leadership gender gap.

SourcePer-Anders Pettersson/Getty

Why you should care

The country hopes dedicated support networks can encourage female leaders.

Dr. Mala Apparaju estimates that she went to more than 100 different job interviews before she was finally appointed principal of a school in a rural district of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It took 40 interviews just to become the head of a department. Sometimes, she remembers, she would arrive for the interview and face a panel of seven men. “Needless to say,” she says, “I didn’t get those jobs.” Finally, around 2002, she got the gig.

Around the same time, Agnes Mazibuko — who’d been rising through the teaching ranks for 24 years — managed to land a job as principal of Ifalethu Primary School in rural Mpumalanga, the first woman in her district to hold the job. She was, she says, the best-qualified candidate, with a stellar track record during her eight-year tenure as deputy principal. Still, she describes it as “a miracle” that she got the job.

Mazibuko’s and Apparaju’s stories of perseverance are inspiring, but even today, they are all too rare. The road from teacher to principal isn’t an easy one for South African women. Of Africa’s 54 nations, South Africa ranks fourth on the United Nations’ gender equality index, but in the world of education?

South Africa ranks lower than any other country worldwide, apart from South Korea, when it comes to the gender gap between teachers and principals.

According to the latest payroll data from South Africa’s Department of Basic Education (DBE), 73 percent of the country’s teachers are female, but only 37 percent of the nation’s 21,621 principals are — a gap of 35 percentage points. These kinds of statistics are not unique to education — after all, only 24 of the world’s Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. And even in education, the U.S. is only marginally better. More than three-quarters of American teachers are female, but men still occupy 46 percent of the country’s principal positions, a gap of 31 percentage points.

While a 2017 UNESCO study acknowledged that many countries don’t collect data on this, it found that South Africa ranked far lower when it came to female leadership in education than most countries not just in Africa but worldwide, apart from South Korea, where the gender gap was 55 percentage points, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures.

As in most countries, South African women face barriers of patriarchy. What’s contributed to making the country’s education leadership gender gap worse than others is the legacy of decades of apartheid-era laws that mandated women be paid less than men, according to 2016 research by Gabrielle Wills of Stellenbosch University. That incentivized schools (especially primary schools) to hire women as teachers — without necessarily empowering them with leadership positions — contributing to a higher percentage of female tutors than in any other African country where the Education Policy and Data Center collected data. Black women, in particular, were encouraged to work as teachers and nurses in Bantustan schools and clinics under apartheid.

Apartheid’s overtly discriminatory laws are now history. But the process through which principals are appointed continues to be shaped by gender biases that exist independent of that racist system. A governing body consisting of parents sends a short list of candidates to the education department. David de Korte, who specified that he was speaking in his personal capacity and not as the chairman of the South African Principals’ Association, says that often governing bodies have “good intentions but outdated ideals” when it comes to appointing principals, as they can tend to favor “iron-fist disciplinarians.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the rate of change in South Africa is painstakingly slow: 34 percent of principals were female 15 years ago. The challenges continue even after women are appointed principals. Mazibuko faced an uphill battle persuading her pupils, her staff and her community that a woman could lead. Apparaju reports similar challenges. Both say even getting women to apply for the jobs can be difficult.

Professor Nuraan Davids, chair of the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University, says having female staff but mostly male leaders “sends the wrong message” to children, and that compassion — which might be more forthcoming from women in power than from men — is lacking in school systems generally. Davids can’t understand why the prestigious all-girls school her daughter attended is helmed by a man: “It’s common to have men in charge of girls’ schools,” she says, citing three current examples. “But I’ve never heard of a female principal at a boys’ school.”

In a country where 35.8 percent of children have been sexually abused — stories of teachers and principals raping students are rife — all the experts interviewed for this piece agreed that having more female principals would be a positive step. Mazibuko says she has never had a single case of sexual abuse in her school not only because of the gentler culture but also because she makes a point of interacting with staff and students every day instead of staying in her office.

In 2013, in an effort to redress the balance, the DBE introduced a program called Support Networks for Female Principals. Thus far, says the DBE’s chief education specialist, Selaelo Makatu, six of South Africa’s nine provinces have launched their own support networks for female principals, and discussions have reached 3,283 female leaders.

Mazibuko and Apparaju have been heavily involved in their respective networks. They say the initiative has developed them personally, and that it has improved things drastically in their districts. When Mazibuko was appointed, she was the only female principal of 24 in her circuit; now there are four. Apparaju’s Ugu district is doing even better: Out of 500 schools in the district, the number of female principals has jumped from 170 when the program started to 210 today, a 23 percent increase in just five years.

Davids and de Korte, who both hail from the wealthier Western Cape province, hadn’t heard of the initiative. When asked to comment, Makatu acknowledged that three provinces are “staggering” in their efforts to introduce the support networks, but she declined to name the provinces.

While the bottom-up support networks seem to be working wonders in some areas, there’s no legislation forcing provinces to implement them. Both Mazibuko and Davids wish the government would introduce some quantifiable and enforceable targets to increase the number of female principals.

Apparaju is not willing to wait. “In Ugu district,” she says, “we are hoping to achieve 65 to 70 percent by 2025.” And we wouldn’t bet against her.

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