OPINION | Tawana Kupe: Stereotypes of women are limiting and needs to be changed

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International Womens Day. Vector illustration with women different nationalities and cultures. Struggle for freedom, independence, equality.
International Womens Day. Vector illustration with women different nationalities and cultures. Struggle for freedom, independence, equality.

Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers to gender equality and we need to proactively tackle and change these stereotypes wherever they appear, says the University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe. 

Some of the strongest forces behind persistent gender gaps are harmful social norms and stereotypes that create barriers and limits to what women and men can be or do, including limiting the capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their lives. These stereotypes particularly discriminate against women. They are all around us, they are deeply ingrained and reflect socially contrived ideas of femininity and masculinity.

Even seemingly benign stereotypes such as the traditional view of women as caregivers means that childcare responsibilities often fall exclusively on women. These can prevent women from achieving their full potential.  

The United Nations Human Rights Office emphasises that stereotypes are a contributing factor in violations against women in a vast array of rights, such as the right to health, adequate standard of living, education, marriage and family relations, work, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, political participation and representation, effective remedy, and freedom from gender-based violence.

Tackling stereotypes 

Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers to gender equality and we need to proactively tackle and change these stereotypes wherever they appear. What's more, they are holding back the global economic growth and social progress that will come from women's empowerment and gender equality - the growth and progress that are at the heart of the UN's sustainable development goals. Changing these norms should be at the top of the 2030 Agenda.

The theme for the United Nation’s 2021 International Women’s Day is Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world, which places the spotlight on systemic gender inequalities. No single country has yet managed to achieve full gender equality in practice, that supports, nurtures and grows the next generation of talented women leaders.

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COVID-19 has added to the urgency. The violence against women that has emerged as one of the darkest features of this pandemic is a mirror and a challenge to our values, our resilience and shared humanity. We must not only survive the coronavirus, but emerge renewed, with women as a powerful force at the centre of recovery.

While women have been hardest hit by Covid-19, they are also often leading the way in architecting transformative futures. Many women entrepreneurs have responded to the incredible challenges with both grit and innovation, pivoting rapidly to cope with the impact of the crisis and help create better futures. This calls for us all to shift perspectives and recognise, as Melinda Gates so eloquently asserts, “that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one”.

We applaud the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic. We applaud the women of UP, including UP’s Professor Veronica Ueckermann who since the start of the pandemic has headed the COVID-19 team at the Tshwane District Hospital for the whole of Tshwane, together with her team which includes a large number of women in leadership positions.

Working together 

Men and women need to join forces and proactively build on women in leadership and implement the international human rights treaty to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. 

As the University of Pretoria (UP), we are using our knowledge, insight and expertise to challenge adverse social norms and gender stereotypes on our campuses, with our collaborating partners across the globe, with the businesses and communities with whom we work and in society at large. It’s a central element of our transformation strategy, which also embraces access to rights, skills, resources and jobs, and livelihoods across our full value chain - including through advancing diversity and inclusion, starting with the student recruitment phase. 

At UP we are committed to furthering gender equality and women’s empowerment by offering equal opportunity and helping women to overcome systemic disadvantages so that they can grow as productive academics, and, in turn serve as role models that shape the aspirations and expectations of future generations. We currently have a total of 1 244 women academic and researchers, which is 57% of the total number of academics and researchers (2 178) employed by the university. Of these, 324 or 14% are black women and 16 or 4.5% are professors, compared to a total number of 357 professors appointed at UP. These number reflect that we prioritise gender balance and that the perspectives and leadership styles of both genders are important ingredients to the success of UP.

At UP we further ensure that our young women have access to a number of support interventions that aid their career progression into leadership and decision-making roles. These include one-on-one mentorship with established mentors with the objective of, among other goals: building the confidence of the researcher as an academic; supporting the researcher to become established within a specific research area which can ultimately be measured by the National Research Foundation (NRF) rating funding instrument.

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I want to emphasise that our women are essential to a better future. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 recognises that the future of the continent rests to a large degree on unleashing the potential, skills, knowledge, talents and commitment of its young people; where the full potential of women and youth are realised. Agenda 2063 recognises that “Africa women and youth shall play an important role as drivers of change”.

My hope is that Women’s Month does not come and go without a call to action with our fellow brothers and sisters nationally, continentally and globally to ensure that women’s rights are protected and that approaches to understanding gender equality and gender justice, including feminism and intersectionality are given due priority not only during this month, but becomes embedded into our policy, planning and budgeting efforts across all levels and dimensions of decision-making and behaviour.

- This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria at its 3rd  Annual Women in Science Symposium on 25 August.

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