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LETLHOKWA MPEDI AND LEBOGANG SEALE | Rethink our world to achieve equality for women

Negative perceptions, harmful stereotypes still persist in our homes and workspaces

Stock photo.
Stock photo.
Image: 123RF

Almost 70 years ago, the war cry wathint'Abafazi wathint’imbokodo (you have tampered with the women, you have struck a rock)  was heard for the first time. It was on August 9 1956 when more than 20,000 women united in a mass demonstration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against unjust Pass Laws.

Women’s Month has since emerged as an important opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the achievements and significant role women from all walks of life have played and continue to play in SA.

Since the advent of democracy, SA has made great strides in the quest for gender equality. We boast among the largest contingent of women in parliament and in cabinet, and women are increasingly at the helm of companies.

Yet, to say that SA has achieved equality would be a fallacy. As we celebrate women, we are also called to acknowledge and reflect on the difficulties they continue to face. Negative perceptions and harmful stereotypes of women still persist in our homes and workspaces.

It is a travesty that the majority of women still do not have access to opportunities that can empower them and their communities. Many business practices still make it difficult for women to achieve true inclusion and success. Women remain under-represented across many sectors.

The confluence of factors that have entrenched this inequality include uneven access to education, lack of opportunity, legal hurdles, job segregation, poor medical care and access to infrastructure, lack of representation, lack of bodily autonomy, stifled religious freedoms, biases and persistent societal mindsets.

Creating a more level playing field requires us to challenge every one of these notions and many others. We have to reconfigure not only our structures, systems and support... we have to fundamentally rethink our world.

As society has demonstrated, the implications of failing to do so are dire. Gender-based violence is so prevalent in SA that we have been compared to a  war-torn nation due to the horrific stories that continue to make headlines. We have to tackle gender inequality head-on at an individual level, an institutional level, a national level and an international level.

Universities as the centres for knowledge have a pivotal role in ensuring gender equity and an inclusive society, free from discrimination and abuse of women. The University of Johannesburg has launched various initiatives that seek to challenge gender inequality in our institutions and the impact has been tangible.

We have four broad overarching initiatives. Firstly, we actively promote the implementation of gender agenda initiatives and support and prevention programmes. Secondly, we monitor and evaluate gender agenda interventions.

We have launched institutional forums – including the Men’s Forum – to challenge these imbalances. We boast a Womens Leadership Development Programme to address the gender gap in leadership positions.

Thirdly, we address how gender-based violence intersects with other aspects of identity, including race, sexual orientation and social class. Finally, we ensure constant and effective awareness through a comprehensive communication strategy.

Over half the academic staff are women and the number of professors and associate professors increased from 287 in 2017 to 387 in 2022. Our registrar, deputy vice-chancellor: academic, acting deputy vice-chancellor: internationalisation, chief financial officer and senior executive director are women.

This is not to say we are at the pinnacle and have achieved it all. Part of our duty as institutions is to right these societal imbalances. Importantly, this is a shift we need to see in other facets of society.

• Prof Mpedi is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg. Seale is senior manager, strategic communications, UJ, and a PhD candidate in Journalism and Media Studies

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