The Patriarchal System
The university setting and its structures often present the first challenges to female students. When women enter the higher education system, they find themselves within an environment defined by patriarchal attitudes. As Crain Soudien has noted, higher education institutions remain “geared towards the production of masculine privilege.”41 Women need to navigate that space, often with little preparation, leaving them feeling isolated and self-conscious. That is particularly true for rural black women, who frequently come into the system with even less preparation in how to cope than their white counterparts.42 To survive, they must be alert, self-aware, and somehow hold their own.
Venitha Pillay, professor of education at the University of Pretoria, highlighted the challenges that the patriarchal nature of universities has created for women:
I think the biggest issue is that all our higher education institutions are extremely patriarchal institutions. In a way, that it is so engrained, and so much the norm, that nobody actually sees it. Women themselves don’t even see it. 43
A by-product of this patriarchal attitude is that, in some cases, people don’t expect much of women in terms of their performance. That view, in combination with lingering racist attitudes, makes it particularly difficult for black female students. University lecturers used to say that blacks were not intelligent enough to major in programs like mathematics, and, especially if you were a woman, they made you feel as if you were wasting your time and everyone else’ s. Unfortunately, those attitudes prevail today: during visits to universities across the higher education system, the Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions learned of incidents in which lecturers placed low expectations on black people—and black women in particular.44 Such attitudes continue to create significant challenges to female students, especially those enrolled in STEM programs.45
The resignation of a professor at KwaZulu Natal University illustrates just how pervasive not only racial but also patriarchal attitudes are in higher education. The professor decided to resign rather than being led by a female head of the department, saying quite candidly that, given his upbringing and culture, he could not take orders from a woman.46