The Continuing Challenges
In many ways, the problems women encounter in the higher education system mirror those they face outside of it. And as within the broader society, different women experience worse problems depending on their race, class, and where they grew up.
According to Bev Thaver, associate professor of education at the University ofWestern Cape, it is important to separate women into groups when discussing their success in higher education:
You may find that retention levels for white women may be higher than they are for black women. For it is the architecture of the past that continues to influence what happens in the present. I mean, the old kind of Gramscian
term, you know. The past has put a high mortgage on the present.38
In 2008, Minister of Education Naledi Pandor announced the establishment of the previously mentioned Ministerial Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions in response to the Reitz Four incident, discussed in Chapter 6. The main purpose of the committee was to investigate discrimination in public higher education institutions, with a particular focus on racism, and to make recommendations on how to eliminate discrimination and promote social cohesion. In the case of some of the historically white institutions, such as the UCT or Wits University, the committee heard reports of young black women who went to former white or multiracial elementary and secondary schools, where they performed well—sometimes better than white students. During their first year at the university they continued to be on par with the white students, but then during the second year, as the white students passed to the next level, they were channeled into foundation classes where they often had to pay extra tuition.39 As a result, these black female students have become frustrated by the experience and have concluded that the environment is not necessarily supportive.
Crain Soudien, acting vice chancellor at the UCT, spoke with many black women during the committee’s visits across the university system and recalled an interview with one of them in particular. It illustrated for him just how complex the university experience can be for a black woman and the lasting impression it can make on her life:
In fact, she has a lot of worldly experience, and her children are these incredible, new-era products, and they’re living in Australia and Switzerland—all over the world. But she herself is still having to kind of come to terms with the fact that she’s a supplicant in this space (university).
So she has to continually be kind of doffing her cap and being this posture of almost asking for favors all the time. And it’s complicated because she knows very well what the possibilities of what this space might provide. But she still feels a sense of inferiority. It’s that complexity that I have think that we’re not sufficiently attuned to.40
A number of issues contribute to that complexity that should be explored,
including patriarchal attitudes, family pressures, a lack of financial support, sexism, sexual assault and safety, and unwanted pregnancies. Each is described briefly below.