The Faculty of Health Sciences’ Transformation Equity Committee (TEC) recently hosted a Women’s Month lunchtime webinar that detailed the strides that the University of Cape Town (UCT) has taken – and the measures yet to be taken – to ensure that gender-diverse individuals and those who identify as women are adequately considered and protected.
The webinar featured two speakers: Dr Sianne Alves, the director of the Office for Inclusivity & Change (OIC) at UCT; and Chanté Arab, a gender and sexual diversity advocate in the FHS, who spoke broadly about gender equality, LGBTQIA+ inclusion in the workplace, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), and the provision of gender-inclusive resources and services at UCT. Dr Fezile Khumalo, the chairperson of the Staff Wellness Portfolio in the TEC, hosted the event.
Provisions, policies and procedures
In her presentation, Dr Alves outlined what is in place at UCT in terms of provisions, policies and procedures related to gender inclusion; as well as their limitations, and the support services available to victims of gender-based violence.
“We need to think more broadly about how we promote, protect and support gender diversity and gender equity for all through our academic programmes.”
“Gender diversity has been an aspect that we’ve had to change systems for in order to ensure that we’re not intentionally excluding colleagues, friends, peers and students from being represented equally within the university,” Alves said.
She went on to detail the progress that the university has made over the years.
“Students are able to declare their gender diversity, at which point, the university will help them to select a residence of their choosing and provide assistance in changing the titles on their student cards so that they’re represented accurately,” Alves explained. “We have also revised processes to ensure that all new buildings at the university have four bathrooms, one of which is a gender-neutral or a gender non-binary bathroom. To date, we have 56 gender-neutral toilets at UCT.”
She added that staff are given parental leave – rather than maternity or paternity leave – ensuring that anyone who is a caregiver, regardless of gender or sex, can practise caregiving equally. Additionally, there are sensitisation and behavioural programmes in place; these include workshops and discussions about patriarchy, consent and healthy relationships, among others.
UCT also has an employment equity policy in place. This is a nationally legislated process that ensures that the most marginalised group – black females in the university sector – are represented in every echelon of the institution. However, Alves stressed, the employment equity legislation still takes a binary approach to gender.
“As a university, we have advocated with the [national] Department of Employment and Labour to indicate that we are excluding a large portion of our staff body from the employment equity process because they do not define themselves as either male or female,” she said.
As such, a draft gender equity policy is under way and is being shared via governance committees for consultation. Among others, the policy addresses gender inclusion and how the university needs to support and create spaces that belong to gender non-conforming staff and students. It also speaks to the infrastructure to support gender equity, such as demarcated rooms for breastfeeding.
There is still work to be done when it comes to gender inclusivity at UCT, Alves pointed out, saying that research processes and in-class practices are not representative enough.
“We need to think more broadly about how we, as an academic institution, promote, protect and support gender diversity.”
“Sometimes, we’re a bit too quick to apply gendered binary language upon people. We tend to use gendered pronouns to define them, instead of giving them the opportunity to declare their pronouns. We need to think more broadly about how we, as an academic institution, promote, protect and support gender diversity and, ultimately, gender equity for all through our academic programmes.”
An area that the university is exceptionally well equipped to deal with is SGBV. Alves detailed the reporting process for victims of such violence, who can expect to receive immediate as well as ongoing medical and counselling support.
“We are agile and responsive,” Alves said about UCT’s approach to cases of sexual misconduct and violence, “and the formal disciplinary processes are quite dire for individuals who are found guilty of gender- and sexual-based violence. It can result in expulsion and definitely in suspension.”
Women’s Month and LGBTQIA+
Arab began her presentation by framing the conversation about gender inclusion in the context of Women’s Month celebrations, highlighting their failure to take into account the nuance of the “gender galaxy” and the need for more cognisance of gender-diverse individuals during commemorative events.
“Women’s Month initiatives often involve defining what womanhood looks like in a very heteronormative way, where cisgender women and heterosexual women are defined as what a woman is,” Arab explained. “This alienates many LGBTQIA+ people. Those who identify as non-binary or gender non-conforming have some connection to womanhood, be it through socialisation, because they were assigned female at birth, or because of their gender identity.
“We should also consider non-binary people who identify in a more masculine way, or transgender men – who don’t necessarily identify as women, but who have spent a large part of their lives being seen as women,” she added. “They share many experiences that are similar to those of cisgender women: exclusion in the workplace, struggling for opportunities and gender-based violence.”
Arab then presented a framework to guide thinking about LGBTQIA+ inclusion in large organisations like universities. This six-element approach takes into consideration policies, procedures, support mechanisms, awareness and sensitivity, diverse and inclusive thought, and visibility. According to Arab, UCT is well equipped when it comes to its structures (the first three elements), but behaviours and attitudes (the latter three elements) pose a challenge because they are more person-centred and speak to institutional culture.
In the question-and-answer session, Alves addressed the uptake of support structures and services at UCT.
“Annually from 2020, we’ve seen a 131% increase in the use of services. For 2023 alone, UCT staff and students have reported just over 190 incidences of gender-based violence, though not all of these are happening at UCT. We receive reports from survivors, regardless of whether the act has taken place on campus or not.”
While policy and campaigns are vital, inclusivity practices also need to be incorporated into the curriculum, as one participant pointed out.
“If the university purports to be creating graduate competencies that include inclusion, the ability to be inclusive and practise inclusion, then the curriculum as the modality for that measure needs to be responsive,” Alves said. “A proposal is currently under review, and a curriculum check will be launched, potentially by the end of this year.”
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