Lewin, Thandi (2017). 'Capabilities and gender equity: working lives of early career academics in a South African university.' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Persistent gender inequality in the academy is a worldwide phenomenon. Despite a progressive policy agenda for equity and redress, the same is true in South Africa. South Africa faces a related policy challenge: that of attracting young people into academic careers to replace the ageing, largely white, predominantly male professoriate in its public universities. This PhD study therefore sets out to contribute to significant gaps in the South African empirical research on the working lives of early career academics, by exploring how gender impacts on the academic working lives, career development choices and professional identities of a small group of early career academic women in one South African university. How do this group understand, experience and mediate the gendered institutional environment of their university, with what effects on their professional functioning and choices?

The capability approach provides the space to focus on gender and social injustice and inequality, while examining the capabilities of a relatively elite group in a highly unequal society. Though the approach is most often used to analyse marginalised groups and poverty, it can be used for understanding lives in elite circumstances (Alkire, 2005). Indeed the focus also on elite groups, given the relationality of poverty, makes sense, and in this way the study also makes an original contribution by looking at relative privilege. Furthermore, the ‘ethical individualism’ of the capability approach (Robeyns, 2003) is compelling in allowing for structural analysis, while being able to recognise that people with assumed shared capabilities, achieve very different sets of functionings. This enables an intersectional approach to conversion factors, as both race and social class in particular, also affect what people are able to be and do. Thus the capability approach encourages us to look at people on an individual basis and not to assume that opportunities and constraints will remain the same for members of methodologically created groups, nor should we assume homogeneity among women. Analysing the environmental, social and personal conversion factors that enable or constrain a selected group of academics provides space to look at the interplay between structural/institutional gendered processes and effects and the agency of individual academics.

Turning specifically to gender theorising, Gouws and Hassim (2014) describe how the ‘institutional turn’ in gender politics in South Africa since 1994 may have constrained the achievement of substantive gender equality, as a focus on legal and policy reform does not on its own lead to gender justice. They call for a deeper set of criteria to assess progress in gender equity. Lange (2014) has similarly explored the institutionalisation of transformation in higher education, a concept in common use to describe the need for a range of political and social change processes in South African society and universities working towards both racial and gender equality. She argues for greater conceptual clarity in the use of transformation terminology, which also requires a focus beyond transformation numbers, an understandable obsession in public education policy, given South Africa’s deeply embedded structural inequities. Such debates are at the heart of contemporary South African policy discussions and contestations. In addition, Acker (1990) has shown how gender discrimination is reproduced in and through organisations, arguing that institutions cannot be gender neutral and that gender is a ‘constitutive element in organisational logic’. She provides five analytic categories for exploring gendered institutional cultures. I draw on these and other approaches to understanding the institutionalisation of gender to complement the capability approach in this study.

Using the capability approach as an analytical framework complemented by gender theorizing, the gendered working lives of early career academic women, their professional functionings and choices and their career development aspirations are explored, with a view to understanding the impact of gender on their professional well-being, and what this may tell us about what enables or constrains women in moving on in their academic careers. In depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine women academics who identified as being early career, all working in one faculty in one South African university. Additional interviews were held with institutional managers and institutional literature and policy documentation is also being examined.

The study looks at what capabilities early career academics value, and explores the interplay between assumed capabilities, aspirations and achieved functionings. It explores what effect understandings and experiences of gender have on the experience of the academic workplace. Interview questions focused on a broad range of issues drawn from the literature on gender in higher education, including reasons for choosing an academic career and individual pathways into academia; institutional policies relating to early career academics, career development and experiences of these; views of gender-specific workplace cultures and incidents; family circumstances and their impact on professional lives; perceptions of discrimination; and professional aspirations. Preliminary data analysis shows that gendered working cultures for early career academics in this study have a real effect on their professional functioning. A complex interplay of social, structural and personal conversion factors work to enable and constrain early career women academics in achieving professional well-being and working towards their professional aspirations. The multi-dimensional nature of academic work adds to the complexity of gendered experiences and produces different opportunities and barriers for individual women. It is possible to see some common valued capabilities and functionings across the group emerging, as well as to identify institutional conversion factors that affect the group unevenly, such as available forms of support for early career academics.  There is evidence of adaptive preferences, in the ways in which the women in this group both evaluate their circumstances as academics, determine their valued capabilities and express their professional aspirations.

A greater understanding of how gendered institutional cultures impact on achievement of professional functionings of a group of early career academic women may contribute to proposals for how South African institutions and policy can more substantially address the challenges of gender inequity and academic recruitment in higher education.

scroll to top