Strategies to increase women in higher education leadership in public universities in Uganda

10 August 2015
SERIES Women in think tanks 11 items

[Editor’s note: This post is a new addition to the Women in Think Tanks series. If you would like to contribute expanding the series -by adding additional posts, views, comments, or helping us organise events on the topic, please get in touch. This post is also part of a series on the future of think tanks in Africa. It addresses a key question: how to encourage new thinktankers -women, mostly- to join the ranks of think tanks? If you would like to edit a series please get in touch.]

In a recent paper written with Catherine Kanabahita and Noor Muhidin, from the School of Women and Gender Studiesat Makerere University (Kampala-Uganda) we provide short and long term strategies to improve the representation of women in senior and management level positions on the international higher education sector, and policy research more widely, in Uganda. These strategies seek to embed a focus on gender equality as a strategic priority in universities’ planning and reporting processes. They are drawn from the theory and practice of organisational cultural change and of gender as a construct that perpetuates particular forms of masculine domination.


Economic globalisation and technological changes are transforming the way higher education can be understood. Universities face the challenge of reinterpreting how they teach, what their research priorities are, and the way they conduct research. Moreover, market-promoting policies are challenging higher education, as they are presented as the focal point or learning in a society. This presents the opportunity for universities to work in new forms of partnerships and alliances.

We ask whether universities will also take this context as an opportunity to make better use of women’s potential as professionals and academics. Women’s continued under-representation at senior levels, both in academic and administrative areas, is a matter of basic human rights, but also raises concerns in terms of productivity, as there is a large group (women) whose abilities are being under-utilized. This is possible because unquestioned work practices support disparities between men and women, often working in subtle and insidious ways.

In order to answer how this can be achieved, we draw from organisational change management theory. In this theory, the concept of leadership is offered as a replacement for management in order to understand cultural change within organisations. It defines the leader as the person who influences a group to attain the group’s goals.

On a theoretical level, we ask how gender is being treated in the construction of this new leadership wave, and how this concept can help to promote the changes needed in higher education organisations to achieve major equity between men and women across them, but especially in senior positions.


The findings of the study are based on a case study on the increasing potential for women leaders in Ugandan Universities. Ten female professors were interviewed about their personal journeys. The specific research questions guiding the analysis were:

  • Who are the women who survive and occupy leadership roles in universities?
  • How might their leadership roles be shaped by and a consequence of institutional climate?
  • What strategies do they learn and adopt and how do they lead and manage fellow colleagues?
  • What do these women say about the ways in which women might be increased?

Our analysis of their accounts paid particular attention to three main topics:

  1. Are there feminine qualities for leadership?
  2. How has this affected their career paths?
  3. What is the importance of mentoring experience?

We found that many of the female professor’s narratives echoed the literature that suggests that certain feminine qualities empower women as leaders. These qualities include the capacity to bend the rules and not be let down by rejection or adversity, being empathic and flexible, and having strong interpersonal skills. These characteristics ought to help shape women’s leadership as more horizontal and collaborative, instead of being based on domination and subjection.

Our findings, however, challenge the idea that these characteristics are intrinsic to femininity, as not all women might possess them and they can often be found in men. Also, even if they are valuable to leadership, these characteristics may not be valuable for the market place. For example, employers, even in the education sector, might not appreciate being a risk taker or challenging known structures.

In fact, we found that the career paths of the women interviewed were, for the most part, quite traditional. Nonetheless, the difficulties they encountered on the way led some to be worn out once they reached their desired positions. These difficulties included discrimination, often subtle but not always, as well as the requirement for higher input of energy than their male counterparts to achieve the same goals.

Finally, we found that mentoring is critical in the career paths of female professors. Although most women interviewed have had women mentors, a small percentage received successful mentoring from men. According to our findings, for women, receiving male mentoring is better than receiving none, but female mentors tend to be better because they can be more sensitive to difficulties women face in the workplace.


Based on these findings we put forward a series of strategies to promote the organisational cultural changes that are required to increase women in leadership positions. These include:

  • Affirmative action programmes. Because of a history of discrimination, the Republic of Uganda supports affirmative action programmes constitutionally. Wise appointments to key roles can help change the organisational culture of a University to one that encourages women’s participation.
  • A task group for women in senior academic positions. Marginalized groups, such as women, use ‘resistance’ strategies in order to succeed in a hostile environment. Appointing a specific Task Group that identifies and lobbies for the necessary required changes regarding gender equality would de-atomize these strategies, and make them part of a broader movement.
  • A colloquium of senior women managers in higher education. A unified national system could help engage with institutions in far corners of the continent. Its activities could include establishing a training and support network similar for senior women.
  • Networks for women in universities. Existing networks can help tackle these problems. As they are already present and structured, they can offer several opportunities that can benefit women from different sectors, such as offering opportunities for non-hierarchical mentoring between peers.