All through Nigeria’s higher education (HE) history, it is surprisingly easy to keep a mental count of females that have been university vice-chancellors (VCs), unlike what is obtainable with men. As of October 2021, Nigeria has at least 11 incumbent women VCs of the 202 federal, state, and private institutions.
Clearly, women are underrepresented by a wide margin. Teaching in Nigeria, albeit largely male-dominated, boasts of many female practitioners. But this hardly extends to the headship of tertiary institutions in most cases. Why?
VCs in Nigeria undergo a rigorous selection process. In federal and state varsities, pioneer VCs are appointed by fiat by the visitor, usually the president or state governor respectively. In private varsities, it’s the proprietor. Ahead of subsequent appointments, a vacancy ad is put in newspapers six months to the end of the tenure of the incumbent.
The eligibility criteria are stated, many including a number of years of post-professorial qualification; academic and leadership qualifications; and experience in various capacities. The candidates are then shortlisted and interviewed.
In many cases, like that which preceded the advent of Lilian Salami as VC of the Lagos State University (LASU), crisis due to vested interests, disagreements, and corruption claims by disgruntled factions might disrupt the process.
From one perspective, the general shortage of women at the topmost managerial level of the system can account for why there are a few women VCs in Nigerian universities since not many female practitioners even make it up to the point where they have enough academic achievements to scale through the eligibility criteria when ads are put out. Another is the burden of nurturing a winning career while simultaneously catering to family life and motherhood.
Many women distinguish themselves but more, perhaps, might assume they’re not cut out for the stiff competition, strife, and internal politics that mark the selection process — not while they have children to raise and a home to keep. It can be argued that women in Nigeria’s tertiary institution system have not been equally competitive and for good reasons too. Yet, one can’t discount the place of Nigeria’s context and the general perception of women as leaders.
FEMALE VCs IN NIGERIA AS OF OCTOBER 2021
The database of the National University Commission (NUC) accounts for 54 state, 49 federal, and 99 private universities. Of this number, at least 11 varsities are run by women.
LESS THAN 25 PAST FEMALE VCS
Reports, checks on university websites, and conversations with NUC staff also showed that Nigeria has had at least 20 past female VCs, a few acting and others substantive:
FROM SCRATCH: GENDER INCLUSION IN VARSITY APPOINTMENTS
In a chat with TheCable Lifestyle, Bimbo Ajagun, a lecturer at the Federal University of Technology (FUT), Minna, talked about the lack of gender balance in varsity appointments — a reality she said puts women at a disadvantage in contesting positions as that of the VC.
“I was the only female lecturer in my department, Electrical Engineering, for eight years. If you have 200 and just 10 are female, in that 10, most are entry-level academics. It’s going to take time before we get to that level where we have many women at the top level. As it is now, no department can claim they have a gender balance in staff,” she said.
“In contesting the VC’s seat, you can have 10 candidates but nine are men and only one is a woman. What are the odds of scaling through? We need to start from scratch, having a balanced workforce. We can have an intentional system that specifies male-female ratio in the university workforce. Maybe four slots for females and six for males.
“In lecturing, men have more mentors but there’s always the sexual assault fear for females. Many don’t even want to put themselves in that position where they’re very close to their superiors, It makes it harder. We’re progressing since we now have women as directors in various capacities. It will take years. We just have to keep working hard.”
The minimum entry-level into lecturing is a master’s degree. Once married, many women are at the mercy of their husbands as to whether or not they can further their education.
On her part, Foluke Adeosun, a lecturer at Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), argued that many men don’t support their wives’ ambition to climb the academic ladder, despite the high cost of postgraduate studies.
WORKFORCE DISCRIMINATION, FAMILY COMMITMENTS
Women are prone to be discriminated against on the basis of gender roles. Many employers prefer to employ men who wouldn’t be absent due to circumstances created by family needs. For instance, the woman may be absent from work if her child takes ill; if she suffers morning sickness in pregnancy. She could also take time off to attend antenatal clinics and even ask for maternity leave. All these factors contribute to reduced employment numbers for women.
Sexism, misogyny, and a culture hostile to family commitments are some structural barriers aspiring female leaders in varsities go through. With these discouragements, Adeosun argued that there will be fewer women at the helms of affairs.
“I believe the VC’s seat is highly political in public schools. This may not favour women. For private universities, it could be a 50/50 chance if the female candidate is qualified for the position and is willing to give full dedication to the job. The women-to-men ratio at the entry point is also a fact that can’t be ruled out,” the sociology lecturer said.
It is one thing to identify the challenges but do varsity stakeholders consider this a problem that needs fixing?
A source within the NUC, when asked if the regulatory body has a framework for gender inclusion in staffing, said decisions bordering on this lie with respective varsity authorities who announce vacancies, not the commission.
Ajagun suggested that NUC can have guidelines and policies in what she termed a system of slots to better the odds.
BENEFITS, PROSPECTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Apart from the gain of leadership style that accompanies female headship of universities, it is a no-brainer that economically and socially disempowered women bear negative consequences for the global fight against poverty.
Gender equality in the varsity workforce mirrors the progress toward gender inclusion in postgraduate education so much so that more female PG candidates will mean more women qualified for such leadership positions as the VCs.
Research has associated companies that shifted from a corporate structure composed of no women to 30 percent women with a 15 percent increase in profitability. On how this translates to the university system, Lilian Salami, the VC of the University of Benin (UNIBEN), said: “Women drive the system with so much passion and emotion.”
“There’s also the subtle pressure to deliver and not fail. Whether you like it or not, we are in a society that is still male-dominated and chauvinistic. The woman is also put under some level of pressure to be sure that she delivers and does not fail. It also means a lot as you mentor a lot of girls with many more looking up to you,” the VC added.
“In terms of the numbers, we’ve gradually crossed from one. There was a time that we didn’t even have any female VC in Nigeria. So between the state, private universities, and federal, we’ve gone over 14. We’re doing very well. For me, it’s the right thing to do. We’re coming. We haven’t gotten there but there is hope that we will. It takes time.”
The place of intentional and solution-oriented policies to tackle the prevalent gender imbalance in appointments cannot be overstated. Orientation for all stakeholders and acknowledging imbalance as a problem will also help.
Women, husbands, fathers, employers and the government must be actively involved in changing the narrative of females being at the mercy of men. Women must be more empowered with scholarships if willing to further their studies. Employers should also begin to give equal opportunities to both men and women. All hands must be on deck.
Editor’s note: This report was updated to include Adenike Kuku of Kings University, Odeomu, Osun state — bringing the captured number of female VCs to 11.
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