University’s ‘dual identity’ a barrier to black women PASS staff advancement

14 December 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 10 min.
“Race and gender issues in higher education institutions need to be given more space and continuing attention” – Graduand Nombuso Shabalala. Her supervisor was Professor Gavin Andersson of the UCT Graduate School of Business, Faculty of Commerce.
“Race and gender issues in higher education institutions need to be given more space and continuing attention” – Graduand Nombuso Shabalala. Her supervisor was Professor Gavin Andersson of the UCT Graduate School of Business, Faculty of Commerce.

The low number of black women senior managers within the university’s professional, administrative and support staff (PASS) reflects an array of challenges to their career advancement. But the starkest is the duality within the institution. Opportunities for black women academics outstrip those for black women PASS staff.

This has emerged from graduand Nombuso Shabalala’s study towards a Master of Business Administration qualification, specialising in executive management. Nombuso used the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a case study. She is also the head of UCT’s media unit in the Communication and Marketing Department. On the eve of graduating (in absentia) on 14 December, Nombuso shared her findings and recommendations with UCT News.

Helen Swingler (HS): What is the gist of your study?

Nombuso Shabalala (NS): My research investigated the phenomenon of the low numbers of black (African, Indian and Coloured) females in senior management in a South African public university. I conducted the research as a case study to get an in-depth understanding of the factors driving and enabling this phenomenon. I also wanted to understand how and why leadership and management intersects with social constructs such as race, gender and class. My focus was on PASS staff. In identifying participants, I worked with UCT’s Human Resources department, and my participants are drawn from various departments.


“The university’s dual identity in terms of staff composition is seen as both a problem and a barrier in terms of career advancement.”

HS: What were your findings on the hurdles to black women PASS staff who are managers and keen to progress within the university?

NS: Lack of succession planning and little to no promotion prospects are some of the key findings.  Added to that is the impact of gender and racial microaggressions, and that women of colour within the university feel they must work twice as hard as their white male and female counterparts. Closely linked to this is the pressure to overperform, as either a response to inequality and/or trauma. In addition, the women’s own cognitive structure – holding back and not putting themselves out there – is cited as an impediment to career progression.

Also clear is the huge divide and difference between the staff within the university. The university’s dual identity in terms of staff composition is seen as both a problem and a barrier in terms of career advancement among black female managers. The prevailing view from the study participants is that administrative support staff are often overlooked and given fewer opportunities than their academic counterparts.

One participant said: “This university has a dual identity: academics, and administrative and support staff. When we talk about transformation for support staff, these values ring hollow because we are not beneficiaries of that in terms of career development and succession planning. It sets us back.”

HS: Were you surprised by any of your research findings?

NS: The one that stood out was the impact of religion. One participant wears a hijab and because of that she felt somehow invisible and had to become louder and more verbose. She felt she had to stand out more, otherwise she would fade into the background. This had a negative impact on her. Essentially, the intersectionality of bias is quite profound in terms of gender and race. But class/background is an issue. And so too is religion. There was an observation about the subtle discrimination among women of colour themselves. Participants felt this was a setback to the fight for gender parity.

HS: You mention that your thesis topic was influenced by your passion for gender justice, your upbringing and professional experience. How did these elements work together?

NS: I was raised by women only, my (late) grandmothers – both matriarchs and powerful Xhosa women – instilled and encouraged a deep love for education in me. They both were educated and worked as nurses, so they walked the talk. I always remember them with so much fondness and profound appreciation. Even though they didn’t have much, they never compromised on making sure that I got a good education. My mother and her sisters also raised me. The women in my family remain my role models; they are my definition of strength and tenacity.

Education was always encouraged as a gateway to opportunities and as a powerful empowerment ‘vehicle’ for a woman. I literally took that teaching and advice from home, and I continue to run with it, as it has proven true throughout my life. Education has given me access to opportunities, given me options and so much confidence.

Working at the Agenda Feminist Media Project and the Commission on Gender Equality also influenced my topic. There I gained new knowledge about how gender relations can be transformed, and my understanding of gender and gender justice was further sharpened and shaped.

“The women in my family remain my role models; they are my definition of strength and tenacity.” – Inspirational grad, Nombuso Shabalala.

HS: What are the lessons for UCT and other universities?

NS: The study leads to practical recommendations, some relating to policy development and changes to organisational culture, notably regarding zero tolerance for discriminatory behaviour including microaggressions, and a career development programme for black women working as administrative support staff at UCT. The findings further indicate that race and gender issues in higher education institutions need to be given more space and continuing attention.

At policy level, UCT is making efforts to cultivate an environment of diversity and inclusivity. However, beneath the surface, some participants of this study have experienced and continue to experience microaggressions from colleagues.

All those interviewed noted and felt that academic staff get preferential treatment and are seen to be superior to PASS staff. In relation to the research topic, with these differences, there are some fundamental issues that arise with empowering women and black women to progress into senior positions, creating a pipeline that formally enables advancement.

HS: As a black woman PASS staffer in management yourself you kept a journal of your experiences and responses to interviewees’ stories.

NS: Yes. As part of my data collection, I also used reflective practice or reflexivity. As a researcher, this is where I scrutinised my own values, perceptions, and behaviour, alongside those of the study respondents. That helped a great deal because it allowed me to bring or present my subjective experience. The aim was to understand how much of my “self” I can bring and incorporate into the study. So, I kept a journal throughout my research. During each interview, I found myself deeply connected to the stories and experiences shared.

I underwent a rollercoaster of emotions through the interviews. I didn’t anticipate this at the start.  Some of the participants cried while detailing their experiences, career journeys and how it feels to be judged and discriminated against due to their race, gender, age – and even religion! After those interviews, I broke down. I cried because of my own similar experiences. It was trauma I hadn’t dealt with or properly acknowledged.

HS: What would you like to see emerge because of this work?

NS: One recommendation of the study falls into an informal sphere of mutual support between black women and the creation of networking and mentorship practices. This intervention would be hugely beneficial to women, as discovered in the interviews, and underlined by personal experience. A peer mentorship programme, formal or informal, will help to increase confidence and decrease the self-doubt. Life in organisations can be lonely, but this would change by establishing a community of like-minded women supporting each other. Those who have ‘made it’ can share how they navigated the space so that other women rising through the ranks can learn from success and mistakes.

HS: It took some grit to balance a full-time job with postgraduate studies. How did you manage?

NS: It was incredibly demanding and stressful. I had a routine, which helped a great deal. During the day it was work and then I would rest for an hour or two. The evenings and early mornings (and weekends) were dedicated to my studies. I’d squeeze in running, swimming, and some meditation, which would help whenever I became overwhelmed. Not easy at all, but doable with willpower, support from family and friends – and tons of discipline! My UCT colleagues were also very supportive, really cheering me on and I’m sincerely grateful for that.

It was particularly challenging for our class, the 2020 cohort. When South Africa went into hard lockdown because of COVID-19, we did the rest of the programme online. This had its own complexities. But the extra support from our GSB lecturers and the support staff made all the difference and got us through!

HS: You were also invited to share your work at a virtual conference hosted by University of Copenhagen. That’s a feather in your cap!

NS: UCT is part of the International Research University subcommittee for Gender Equity. As my research is relevant to the area of gender equity, I was also invited to share a snapshot of my research. This year’s meeting was hosted by the University of Copenhagen. There were presentations by other universities around the world on identifying current and future issues regarding equity and inclusion, particularly in higher education. It was a lovely experience and an eye opener.

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