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In search of female vice chancellors in Nigerian varsities

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Hajiya Bilkisu Oniyangi


Since the advent of university education in the country, only a handful of females have become vice chancellors. UJUNWA ATUEYI examines the situation.

Does the notion, “what a man can do, a woman can do better,” apply only in the area of trade, craft and maybe other business transactions, but not leadership positions? It seems so. For not even in academia where many of the philosophies and views about bridging gender gaps emanate from does the notion apply.
 
Ever since the advent of university education in Nigeria, the system cannot boast of producing up to 15 substantive female vice chancellors, either from the public, faith-based or private institutions. Teaching and learning industry is generally perceived as female-dominated field, but this trend changes within the career trajectories of women as their representation begins to decline in a higher academic environment, and more so at senior management level.
 
Could this be as a result of choice or circumstances? Is it that the system and the society have no faith in women occupying such positions or is it just fallout of gender inequality? Sadly, there is no statistics on the number of female VCs in the history of Nigerian universities, but The Guardian checks show just a very few of them.

 
Apart from Grace Alele Williams, the first female vice chancellor in Nigeria; Sidi Osho, Peace Babalola, Comfort Ekpo, Fatima Mukhtar, Aize Obayan, Jadesola Akande, Oluwayemisi Obilade and the recently appointed Lilian Salami, who defied the odds in the male dominated environment, the position of VC in our tertiary institutions seems to be strictly reserved for men.
 
This tradition, however, is not peculiar to Nigeria alone as reports revealed that women are also underrepresented at the topmost level in the United Kingdom’s (UK) higher education system. According to report, in the UK higher education system, less than 15 percent of vice chancellors are women, even when women make up 51 percent of the general population; 50 percent of early career academics and 60 percent of higher education students.
 
Observers say culture; environment and partisan politics in the system have a hand in all of this. Highlighting what could be responsible for low percentage of women attaining the level of VC, a distinguished professor at University of Lagos and Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju, said the trend is as a result of a number of factors. He said: “First, the underrepresentation of women in the top hierarchy of academics, especially as VC’s, is a global trend. It is not peculiar to Nigeria. Second, as most VCs appear to have been recruited from the ranks of former deputy vice chancellors and deans, only a minority of whom were/are women, it is to be expected that only a handful of women will end up as VCs.
 
“Third, it is not easy being a woman in academics with women’s multiple roles and societal attitudes towards women in leadership. Fourth, most women who have ability to lead do not have the stomach for the politics involved in the appointment of VCs.On whether the system has confidence in women, Olukoju, who is also a Fellow, Nigerian Academy of Letters, said: “It is not a vote of no confidence in women. It should be conceded, however, that most successful and principled women are stigmatised as “tough”, “iron ladies.” Many of such are too principled to engage in the horse-trading often required to clinch the top job.
 
“I know of several successful women in responsible positions: our current dean of arts, Prof Olufunke Adeboye, is a woman and, for that matter, the first female Professor of History at the University of Lagos. She won by a landslide. It shows that anyone considered good enough would get to the top when the stars align for them. We need more of such outstanding female scholars in the first instance.”
 
Affirming that female academics are in the minority, Olukoju said the preponderance of male heads is a reflection of the reality in virtually all institutions of higher learning. “This also reflects societal expectations and, as I stated earlier, the multiple roles of women which cannot allow women to spare the time that men can afford,” he added.
 
To increase the number of women in such positions, he recommended: “The first thing is to increase the number of women in academics. However, the choice of career is personal and, so, career choices cannot be imposed. Second, we should embark on affirmative action in favour of the women when both male and female candidates qualify for the same position.”He further suggested that faculties can also deliberately vote in female candidates as tie breakers in potentially divisive elections, adding that “the more women become deans or directors, the greater their chances of ascending the ladder to the position of deputy vice chancellor which is often a stepping stone to the ultimate position.”
 
Echoing Olukoju’s view, former Kwara State Commissioner for Education, Hajiya Bilkisu Oniyangi, said the environment, community and societal demands inhibit women from aspiring. Not only that, she added that the partisan politics in the Nigerian system itself does not help matters.

According to her, “Women do not really come out for such positions. Besides, we have a very few of them, few doctorate, few professors and sometimes, most of them get it for the sake of getting it and not really applying it. The moment you have a doctorate degree and you don’t apply it in the lecture room, there is a constraint. If you go to our university, you will find that we have fewer female lectures than male.
 
“Situations whereby we have female lecturers, you discover that they are not really aspiring. What I mean by that is this, for you to become a professor it means you have to continue in research and new knowledge. But some of our female professors or PhD holders want to apply their knowledge in a boardroom. They want to be given a chief executive office or a board member somewhere and there is a reason for all that.

 
She continued, “The way they politicise every single thing within the community in the Nigerian system itself is appalling. Attaining the position of a VC is in the hand of the government of the day either at state or federal level to choose whoever they want. How many women have the guts to go ahead and pursue this? You know the kind of politics they play in this country, so it becomes so difficult for women. Of course, you hardly find population of women vying for such positions, so when it becomes competitive and you look at the criteria, you find that we have very few women who have attained that.
 
“Another issue is the environment itself. That is, talking about the husband and the community factor.  How many women would be allowed to actually explore and expand their horizon? I think that is where the problem is. Women become very constrained in that area, you find that most of us go for our doctorate, at the end of the day that is all. Just to say yes, we have a doctorate degree,” Oniyangi stressed.

Immediate Past Vice Chancellor of Bells University of Technology, Ota, Prof. Isaac Adebayo Adeyemi, blamed the situation on low percentage of women in academic positions and university administration, which he explained is training ground for such positions.“I think the possible cause of under representation emanates from the following: numerically, men outnumber women in academic positions over the years and that might have been largely responsible for the under representation. The numerical gap is still evident as of today and bridging this gap will take years if not impossible unless proactive actions and decisions are taken not only nationally but also globally. This is not peculiar to Nigeria; it is a global challenge, which has been extremely difficult to bridge.

“It is not that the system has no faith in women the corollary is the case. We should consider it from a broader perspective. The question should be: Are women given the opportunity to serve in administrative and other positions within the system? The answer is yes. The approach for this report is based on the apex of university administration, which is the VC. The rudiments of university administration are learnt from various positions such as membership of committees, Headship of Department, Directorship positions, Deanship positions and Deputy Vice Chancellorship and of course membership of the Governing Council etc.

He continued: “Serving in some of these positions enables academic staff to gain insights into university administration and hence as training grounds for the position of VC. A survey of women occupying some of these positions within the system would testify to the fact that the system has strong faith in women who have always performed excellently well.

Without mincing words, most VCs’ do have much more confidence in women who have been appointed to some of these positions for obvious reasons. Women are known to exhibit a higher level of firmness, innovation, foresight, commitment, discipline and accountability, among some other factors, more than their male counterparts. That’s my personal opinion and I stand to be corrected. These attributes would explain the reasons why the system acknowledges the fact that: “what a man can do, a woman can do better.”On deliberate efforts that should be made to increase the presence of women in university administration, Adeyemi said creating awareness and mentoring women in academics should be the first step.“The most strategic platform to lean on within the Nigerian context is the “National Association of Women Academics in Nigeria (NAWACS).”

Through this platform, seminars and trainings could be organised on the procedure and processes involved in the appointment of a VC, which could vary from institution to institution.

Furthermore, the rigours and flexing of muscles involved in the process should be well articulated. The position of a VC is not only an academic and administrative position, it can be seen as a political position within the Nigerian context, more especially in public universities. That position is not immune from the national, regional, state, tribal, ethnic and religious politic,s which could be raw and dirty sometimes. It’s like the Yoruba folk song that says: “Eni ba la’ya ko wa wo” that is, if you have the boldness and courage you are welcome.

 

 


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