Professor Linda Ronnie from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Commerce presented the Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture on 28 September 2022 at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Her lecture was titled: “Women in academia: Thriving or Surviving?” and focused on the psychological contract – the relationship between academics and their institutions and how that has been changing over the last decade. The lecture examined the psychological contract from the perspectives of women academics in South Africa at a turbulent time for universities.
“There are two main kinds of psychological contract: the transactional one, and the relational one, which together can be viewed as a continuum. On the one end is the contract which has a transactional nature to it – employees come to work and do what they are paid to do, while the employer offers fairly limited involvement,” Professor Ronnie said.
“Then on the other end there is the relational psychological contract, where the employee supports the organisation and shows loyalty, along with organisational citizenship behaviours and commitment to the goals of the organisation. The employer in turn supports the well-being and interests of the employee. The psychological contract can thus be seen as a really good measure of whether employees are thriving or not.”
A growing tension
Against a backdrop of structural changes in higher education over the past two decades and the rise of managerialism, increased workload demands, together with reduced autonomy, have negatively impacted on the trust, morale and commitment of academics towards their institutions, explained Ronnie.
“Pertinent to our discussion today, universities governed by managerialist agendas have served to strengthen rather than reduce inequalities along gender lines. Given that the narrow identity of the ideal academic continues to be seen as someone who has few commitments or interests outside of the academy, women – who are often predominantly involved in the care of dependents in the domestic environment – have suffered more adversely than their male colleagues,” she said.
While there are studies looking at differences across gender in terms of psychological contract fulfilment in a variety of sectors, there has been a paucity of research with regards to women in academia both globally and in South Africa. The findings of the study shared by Ronnie address this issue, and represent the lives of women academics across the 26 public universities in South Africa during the pandemic, a time of crisis which brought many things sharply into focus.
Unexpected and alarming findings
“The results of the study show something quite disturbing, in that there is a strong inclination towards a transitional psychological contract type, something which is very odd to see in a work relationship. It typically happens during organisational transition and change, and is characterised by highly ambiguous expectations,” said Ronnie. “The employment relationship between women academics and their institutions is eroding and is seen in the data through numerous examples of contractual breach. These include a shift in conditions and demands, an increase in workload and pressure, perceptions of a lack of care, low levels of trust and support, and a negative, almost overlooked impact on academic well-being. Women academics in middle management roles weren’t exempt either, expressing frustration, exhaustion and feelings of being overwhelmed.”
“The employment relationship between women academics and their institutions is eroding, and is seen in the data through numerous examples of contractual breach.”
Ronnie explained that thriving can be understood as the psychological state in which individuals experience both a sense of vitality and sense of learning at work; where they feel enthusiastic and valued and that what they do is valuable. It is not feeling overwhelmed or depleted; nor is it experiencing feelings of meaningless, hopelessness or a lack of self-efficacy in one’s life. “So, sadly, I am of the view that women academics aren’t thriving; they are surviving,” she said. “If you do see little pockets of thriving, that is because people are really drawing on their innermost resources to keep it going.”
She added that the effects of the lack of fulfilment of the psychological contract is not to be underestimated; it is a disruptive signal which is likely to prompt negative reactions. “If we acknowledge that work–life merge is expected to carry on indefinitely in higher education, universities need to be aware of and act on its adverse impact.”
Leading the change
In terms of where and how things must shift, Ronnie recommends that women need more deliberate support in practical and tangible ways. She said: “From a leadership perspective, addressing the issue requires more than just a verbal exchange, but a more substantive, active response, and co-created organisational reform. A true collaboration is needed to repair trust and avoid the ‘quiet quitting syndrome’ – something which is particularly problematic in a country like South Africa where unemployment is high and people cannot easily leave their jobs; but instead disconnect and disengage, with increased cynicism and counter-productive work behaviours.
“Self-awareness, compassion, empathy, vulnerability and agility are essential leadership characteristics to navigate through any crisis, and I would consider those complete non-negotiables for academic leadership. We need responsible and responsive senior leaders to deal with the serious challenge of our surviving women academics within our academies. Do we have those kind of leaders? I’ll leave you to answer that,” Ronnie concluded.
Ronnie is the first woman of colour to achieve the rank of full professor in UCT’s Faculty of Commerce. She was praised by the current dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Professor Suki Goodman, for personifying authentic leadership during her tenure as dean of the faculty, with a standout feature to Ronnie’s academic career being that she embodies the theory she has contributed to.
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