Gender Issues

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 318–329 | Cite as

Women in Academic Arena: Struggles, Strategies and Personal Choices

  • Adefunke O. EkineEmail author
Original Article


Gender issues have been a research concern within the education community at all levels in the last few decades as education is regarded as a critical tool in development and the most effective tool to empower women to be able to live a more productive life as they access higher education. Despite the increase in access to higher education and women being in the majority in the teaching profession; it is still a herculean task for women attain top management positions especially in African universities because of cultural factors and patriarchal system of leadership. This situation is often described as a “chilly climate” due to both overt and covert behaviours and systemic barriers that needs attention. This paper therefore highlights the narrative stories of women leaders in Tai Solarin University of Education, in Nigeria where the researcher works as told by selected women leaders of their struggles, challenges and choices in the course of duty.


Women Leadership Higher education Patriarchal Culture 


Education has been regarded as a critical tool in development and it is the most effective tool to end poverty and empower women to be able to live a more productive life. In as much as more women have access to higher education women are still significantly underrepresented in academic leadership positions [1, 4]. According to Ekpo [4] leadership could be seen as a process in which ones actions, words and thoughts influences the actions, words and thoughts of others and propel them to achieving specified goals. It can thus be deduced that leadership is not gender specific and any sex with the required leadership qualities can and should aspire to leadership positions. Unfortunately, this has not been the case as in many aspects of society, including higher education, men have dominated leadership positions. According Ojo and Olaniyan [11] in their study, teaching even though viewed as an ideal profession for women, has a larger percentage of them occupying the lower cadre and the percentage gradually reduces as we progress to higher education. This assertion was further corroborated by Nieuwenhius [10] that stated that female academics are still in the minority compared to male academics.

Furthermore, Egunjobi [3] observed that academic profession has been viewed as a single sex profession long before now, but as at today the percentage of women academic staff in most countries are still very low compared to their male counterpart though rising gradually. Examples are: USA 45% Jamaica 50%, Nigeria, 13.6%, Ghana, 9.5%, Tanzania, 11%, and an average of 24% in most commonwealth nations.

The number of women enrolled in tertiary institutions has grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970 (UNESCO, 2010). A UNESCO global gender parity index that computes the ratio of female-to-male enrolment in higher education is now 1.08 meaning that there are slightly more women undergraduates than men enrolled worldwide. Globally, the number of female students rose six fold from 10.8 to 77.4 million between 1970 and 2008 (UNESCO, 2010) this has not yet resulted in the female folk occupying leadership positions in higher education.

In a report quoted by Ojo and Olaniyan [11] in British Universities, full time female academics account for 42% but only 16.5% of them make it up to professorial level which most time is the level of attaining leadership roles in the system. A further confirmation to the dearth of female professors can be found in Okebukola’s work [12] where female professors accounted for 6.9% of all full time academic professors in Nigerian Universities.

In a more recent work done by a colleague in the Arab countries, Jaber [7] working on breaking the glass doors: a gender analysis of Womenomics in the Jordianian National Curriculum she opined that “promoting women’s participation in the work force is not an easy task and it requires a shift in the subjective belief about women and economic life”.

Gender disparity in leadership position in the Nigerian universities seems to be an age-long phenomenon according to [5] and still persist with women constituting between 16 and 25% of “management staff” in 128 universities (40 Federal, 38 State-owned and 50 Private) Aina, 2014. A further confirmation of this gross imbalance is seen as depicted by this extrapolated data from National Universities Commission (NUC) the body that regulates all universities in the country (Table 1).
Table 1

Heads of Universities in Nigeria according to gender as extrapolated from NUC Data in 2015


Female VC (%)

Male VC (%)

Federal (40)

2 (5%)

38 (95%)

State (40)

5 (12.50%)

35 (87.50%)

Private (61)

3 (4.92%)

58 (95.08%)

Overall (141)

10 (7.09%)

131 (92.91%)

The situation in which the female academics are not visible in the top management positions of the universities across board both at the federal, state or private institutions has been described as a case of “extinction” or becoming an: endangered species and this is the case of Tai Solarin University of Education where the researcher currently work. Having spent close to seven years in the system, the gender imbalance in the leadership position of the school management gave rise to this study even though it is the first university of education in Nigeria and second in Africa where you will expect that the academic staff will be mostly female since teaching as been regarded as a female profession [13].

A Brief History and Statistics of Tai Solarin University of Education

Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED, pronounced TARSUD), was established on 29th January 2005 by the Ogun State government as a unique tertiary institution in the country. It is the first of its kind in Nigeria, and the only institution in the country that offers both the Bachelor’s degree programmes in Education (B.Ed.) and also a vocational certificate.

TASUED is a transformation of the then Tai Solarin College of Education (TASCE) with a Staff statistics about 669 of which 43% were academic staff as at pronouncement in 2005. However in the space of twelve years the staff strength has grown as shown below (Tables 2, 3).
Table 2

TASUED staff list



Male (%)

Female (%)



Teaching staff

210 (72%)

82 (28%)



Non teaching staff

319 (58%)

225 (42%)







Table 3

Number of TASUED staff who are professors/associate professors according to gender





































This table shows that only 11 senior female academic staff can be appointed into positions of leadership by the university regulations of appointing only those with a professorial rank. This is a mere 3.6% out of a staff strength of almost 300 as at the time of writing this paper

Statement of the Problem

Many Studies have highlighted the low percentage of women in academic position of leadership in the universities; a personal observation of the researcher in the last seven years in my university where purposive mentoring was used by the first female vice chancellor to address this imbalance gave rise to the study. There is the need to reflect on the personal stories, strategy and sacrifices of the selected women leaders as they progressed in their career path to attain leadership position. The research therefore sought to narrate the personal stories of selected women in academic arena: struggles, strategies and personal choices.

Purpose of the Study The purpose of the study was to address the research problem stated above and find out the decisions and sacrifices’ that the women in academic made to attain leadership and encourage others to do so. The purpose was to highlight the common thread in the women as they climbed the ladder of leadership and to juxtapose their personal responses with theoretical background of the role of mentoring in academic leadership position for women.

Literature Review

A review of literature show that there are various root causes of women marginalization as discussed below:

(a)The Meritocracy/Individual Model Women are perceived not to be assertive in nature by virtue of their abilities, personality traits, self confidence and aspirations so they just don’t go for leadership post. A school of thought has it that because women perceive power differently from men they do not pursue power. This is in line with the social role theory that depicts the different roles of both men and women due to societal expectations. Women use power to empower others so they do not struggle for it unlike men who sees power as a position of right, affluence and ego boosting. According to Mejiuni [9] in her book “Women and Power” she mentioned that some of the people she interviewed in writing her book viewed women as being incapable of handling positions of leadership as they are too weak and fragile but they are good in supportive roles and in managing finances.

(b)The Organizational/Discrimination Model This model is based on systemic gender bias which favours men to aspire to leadership positions while the women cannot even if they desire to. There are cases of women that cannot become leaders because of pregnancy or childbearing responsibilities. Work stress does have a home-work interface connection as indicated by Akinsanya. Researchers such as Ojo and Olaniyan [11] and Hutchings [6] indicated that the dual role of women in academics as wives/mothers as well as lecturers could be a source of stress. While the husbands go to clubs and other relaxation centres to unwind, the women academic go back home to attend to domestic chores and care of children. It is said that averagely a woman academic career suffers due to work hours spend on care giving and household labour. And since the average age of obtaining a PHD is 33 years women tend to postpone their career pursuit to raising a family [8].

(c) The Woman’s Place/social Model This model is associated with socio-cultural biases that encourage discriminating practices and stereotypes that pattern women and men differently even as far as job/work is concerned. Generally it is said that administrative positions in academia have a well defined hierarchy and the fact that there exist gendered organization whereby work policies favours men more than women e.g. recruiting fewer women to administrative ranks thereby limiting the number that can rise to the available ranks sequentially. Often times time table for tenure positions coincide with optimal child bearing years of young women academic scholars. Another challenge is the entry point of women to into the university where majority come in at a lower level e.g. secretaries, clerical officers and then, been saddled with a lot of domestic issue. Generally in Nigerian Universities women are not commonly given the positions of Deans and female vice chancellors are in the minority. However, recently there have been exceptions to the rule in some tertiary institutions in Nigeria with Prof Alele Williams, the first female Vice Chancellor of University of Benin; the late Professor Jadesola Akande of Lagos State University, Lagos. Nowadays we have the likes of TASUED with the first female Vice chancellor in the person of Prof Oluyemisi Obilade, Covenant University Ota and Profesor Ekpo of University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.

(d) Another major root cause is lack of role models or mentoring group among the women academia. Women are often not involved with informal networks within the system and most often than not the majority of senior officers are men thereby leaving the female hands to fend for themselves. Adegun [1] in her work on Gender factor and labour participation among academic staff in tertiary institution in Ekiti state opined that poor representation of female lecturers at the professorial level accounts for the dearth of female academics at the management level. Alexander and Welzels theory as quoted by Jaber [7] states that the greater the number of women role modeling positions of decision making and leadership the stronger the legitimacy for women to take control of their economic and political lives. Thus reaffirm the fact the less women in leadership roles in higher education will lead to less and less women in future in such roles.

Purposive mentoring and role modeling is a positive way of ensuring more women academics in leadership as mentoring has been accepted worldwide to have a great effect on women achieving their full potentials. Women can be mentored by men but it is more beneficial if women have female mentors because women interacting, sharing experiences and knowledge are significant to their career growth. This case of personal and collective mentoring was exemplified at the TASUED university under the first female vice chancellor where the number of female academics rose significantly between the period of five years (2013–2018) from four to twenty.

Research Questions This paper addresses four basic questions about the strategies, struggles and choices made by the participants to achieve leadership roles in the university.
  1. 1.

    What are the common academic leadership positions held by the women in the observed institution?

  2. 2.

    What are the challenges faced by women in academic to attain leadership positions?

  3. 3.

    How women in academic do strategize to ensure more women attain leadership position?

  4. 4.

    How do women in academic make personal sacrifice or choice in order to attain leadership positions?



The study made use of descriptive survey research design because the situation already exist. The research involved a two pronged approach to data collection: numerical data from the university establishment department where letters of appointments are issued out to deserving staff to be put in leadership which served as primary data. Secondly an in depth structured interview/questionnaire was administered to the twenty female academics who were purposively selected as case studies because they currently hold leadership position and were willing to share their personal struggles. They presented their cases as “reality” and this lend authenticity to the issues of concern in this research. Four themes were highlighted to indicate the common leadership position left for women, their challenges, strategies used to achieve leadership and their personal choices and sacrifices to assume leadership position. The interview took approximately two weeks and not all participants responses were used in the final analysis. Some of the structured questions were not answered by some of them which made the responses void while some felt the time for the interview was rather too long and asking too much details The study adopted a thematic approach in qualitative analysis which is a form of analysis in qualitative research that examines and records pattern within a given data.

Results and Discussion

Four themes were formulated based on the research questions generated for the study. The thematic approach is considered appropriate because it allows the research to code the qualitative data in themes, categorised them accordingly which are also in line with the concepts from the literature review [2].

The research being a case study of women in academic arena in one university involved seven participants who fully complied with all criteria, answered all questions asked and expressed themselves freely without any string attached. The paradigm adopted is interpretive which enable the researcher to interpret the submissions of the participants in line with the identified themes [2]. These participants were purposively selected based on the criteria that they have once or currently holding an administrative position in the university and also, they are in top cadres in academic. All the participants hold Doctor of Philosophy degree and two of them are Professors while the remaining five were either a Senior Lecturer or an Associate Professor. All the participants were above 50 years of age and their working experience ranges from 12 years to 35 years. In the analysis, the participants were coded with their titles but letter A to G were used to replace their names for ethical reasons. Their responses are analysed based on the generated themes as follows:
  1. (1)

    Research question 1: What are the common academic leadership positions held by the women in the observed institution?

The responses gathered from these participants revealed that the common positions held by women in academic arena are:
  1. 1.

    Chairperson of a given committee,

  2. 2.

    Programme coordinator

  3. 3.

    Head of Unit

  4. 4.

    Acting Head of Department/Head of Department

  5. 5.

    Sub-Dean of a Faculty

  6. 6.

    Dean of a Faculty

  7. 7.

    Director of a programme or centre

  8. 8.

    Dean of Student Affairs


Further analysis of this information reveals that women are not always holding higher leadership positions in the university. For instance, it was only one of the participants that had ever held position of Dean of Faculty, which is the highest leadership position at the faculty level. At the university level, five of the women had served as Director of Programme/Centre; one had served as Dean of Student Affairs. None of the women has ever served in any of the topmost administrative positions such as Vice Chancellor, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Bursar, Librarian or Registrar which are called Management position where decisions are made.

All the participants submitted that it is important to have female administrators in higher institution and support their submissions with several reasons. Prof. A supported her reason by saying that female administrators are ‘better in managing and directing’. Whereas Dr. C who had served as Sub-Dean and Director of a programme in the past, supported her view with this words:

The students need mentors and because women are sensitive, they can see what others do not see. I prefer female administrators.

This therefore shows that though women in academic arena do aspire for leadership positions in the university system, they always have limitations to acquire such and they are more seen holding positions in the departments and faculty but scantly when it comes to holding leadership administrative positions at the university level. This finding is in line with Mejiuni [9] assertion that states that women use their position to support others and do not necessarily clamour for the top.
  1. (2)

    Research Question 2: What are the challenges faced by women in academic to attain leadership positions?

The challenges discussed by the participants are many but generally, they can be categorised into three, these are:
  1. 1.

    Challenges associated with acceptance

  2. 2.

    Challenges associated with workload and

  3. 3.

    Challenges associated with finance


Of all the participants, three of them Prof. A, Dr. D and Dr. E—lamented the challenges related to the acceptance of women in leadership positions in the university. Prof. A mentioned one of the challenges as ‘Leadership is believed it is a man’s assignment’. As discussed above there is the subtle believe that leadership in the ivory towers belong to the male folk. This at times is, a psychological challenge and might make one think he/she might not be able to achieve the institutional goals expected. Dr. D puts this challenge in another word. ‘Barriers of underestimating the traits in a female as a leader, i.e. male chauvinism’. But in the word of Dr. E, the challenge of acceptance does not limit to gender alone but race/tribe also. She submitted that ‘Tacit and implicit discrimination on account of race/tribe not gender especially in a country as diverse as having over 200 ethnic groups and practicing the patriarchal system. I overcome or try to overcome by relating amicably with everybody’.

Challenge associated with workload is reported by Dr. C. While answering the question that seeks if she has barrier in her career, she listed ‘lecture timetable’ as one of the challenges. Again, when she was responding to the item on challenges women experience as leaders, she listed ‘time and helpers’. This shows that workload is one of the challenges facing women. This should be taken seriously most especially with African women who, with whatever the office workload is, will still have to do some domestic home works. This is in tandem with Akinsanya’s submission and Ojo and Olaniyan [11] that mentioned the interface between work and domestic chores for the female academics.

Challenge associated with finance was reported by Dr. C who, while listing the barriers experienced in her career, wrote ‘finance and adjusted loan’ as two major barriers out of the three listed. Also, while listing obstacles and challenges faced by women as a leader in Nigeria, she listed finance as the first. Dr. E also listed issue of finance in her response to challenges and barriers faced by women in leadership position. But to her, she saw it from the angle of financial management. She wrote, ‘prudent financial management’. Therefore, it could be submitted that women in leadership position in academic arena do face financial challenge in two ways, getting enough fund and managing prudently, the available one.

The findings of this study about the challenges facing women in academic leadership position are in line with the assertion of Ojo and Olaniyan [11] while quoting from another source implied that in general women have less access than men to the structural and personal resources that enhance research productivity which in turn positions them for rapid career growth and attainment of leadership position.
  1. (3)

    Research question 3: How women in academic do strategize to ensure more women attain leadership position?

The participants were first asked to identify the strategies that they used to overcome the challenges they faced in their career. It was deduced firstly that the strategies used are found in their personal interaction with others. Openness, honesty, firmness, decisiveness, being self assured and living up to expectation and being at the top of affair are the strategies adopted by the women to overcome their challenges. For instance, Dr. E submitted that:

Strive to live up to expectation and keep tenets of agreement to ensure peace, effectiveness and efficacy at work. To be self and not to join them, rather hold onto my convictions and be contented.

Dr. C also supported this line by describing her strategies in the following words:

You must be firm and decisive. When people see that you cannot be intimidated, they comply with instructions.

Two major strategies for preparing or supporting women aspiring leadership positions in academic could be deduced from the discussions of the participants. The first is personal development and the other is women support or mentoring. Strategies used under personal development include educational advancement, attendance at gender oriented workshops, and attendance at conferences, seminars and workshops. Being academically sound by obtaining all necessary certificate, attendance in training and short courses. In the words of Dr. C,

Be prepared academically – obtain all necessary certificates. Go for training, Seminar, workshop – weather sponsored or not. Don’t limit yourself.

Dr. E supported this submission by saying ‘By training – workshop, short courses and conferences’

Dr. F made her contribution on this so precise by saying ‘Educational advancement, attendance at gender oriented workshops’. In this same vein, Dr. D suggestion was ‘Seminar and conference’.

It was Dr. D that suggested women support. To her, one of the ways by which other women could be prepared and assisted is through ‘be in support of each other’.

The participants were asked to identify common strategies to successful women leaders. The following strategies where listed by the women:
  1. 1.

    strong mindedness;

  2. 2.

    firmness, fairness, honesty and diligent;

  3. 3.


  4. 4.

    doggedness, positive self-esteem, support from home

  5. 5.

    openness and willingness to help;

  6. 6.

    bold, belief in self, qualified and experienced,

  7. 7.

    Sacrifice and prudence.


While Prof. B identified ‘strong mindedness’, Dr. G identified ‘hard work’. In her own contribution, Dr. E identified five of the common strategies as ‘bold, belief in themselves, qualified and experienced, sacrifice, and prudent’. Dr. C pointed out that ‘They work hard. They are honest and open. They are willing and ready to help’. It was Dr. F that identified ‘firmness, fairness, honesty and diligent’. All these strategies and skills are supported by literature the fact that mentoring and personal development had been mentioned as one of the ways to encourage women in leadership by Jaber [7].

Research Question 4 How do women in academic make personal sacrifice or choice in order to attain leadership positions?

Women leaders in academic arena do make several sacrifices and choices in order to ensure successful administration in the university system. The sacrifices can be categorised into two broad areas namely, home related and workplace related sacrifices.

Under home related sacrifices, the participants listed the following:
  1. 1.

    sending their child to boarding school

  2. 2.

    getting house-help

  3. 3.

    using personal money to run the university system

While the office related sacrifices are:
  1. 1.

    additional commitment to the office demand

  2. 2.

    travelling at odd hours

  3. 3.

    appeasing young staff with financial or material rewards

  4. 4.

    taking care of the needs of the followers

  5. 5.

    additional personal development in all necessary areas

In the submissions of Dr. E, she listed the following as those sacrifices she had to make most times for her to be successful:

Yes, like using my personal money, travelling at odd hours, appeasing younger staff with financial or material rewards.

Dr. E also claimed that she used to struggle with ‘getting some men to carry out instruction’.

Dr. C on her own submitted that she had to make the sacrifice of ‘having to take care of the needs of the followers’. While responding to what she used to struggle with, she wrote ‘their insensitivity’. It was from Prof. B submissions that it was clear that her sacrifice was to make ‘personal development in all necessary areas’. To Dr. G, it is additional ‘commitment’ that was her sacrifice. Dr. D has the following submissions about her sacrifices and struggles;

Yes, I had to send my son to boarding school and get a house keeper for the home. … to be heard and not just to be seen.

The findings of this study about sacrifices and struggles of women leaders in academic corroborate the assertions in previously reviewed literature that women do go through personal sacrifice to attain academic leadership position as traditionally women are regarded as too weak to lead. According to Mejiuni [9] in her book “Women and Power” she mentioned that women are viewed as being incapable of handling positions of leadership as they are too weak and fragile but they are good in supportive roles and in managing finances. Furthermore the organizational/discrimination model favours men to aspire to leadership positions while the women cannot even if they desire to due to family pressures and childbearing responsibilities which some of the women leaders interviewed had to struggle with while aspiring to measure up in their leadership positions.

Mentoring as been suggested as a panacea for getting more women in leadership positions by researchers such as Adegun [1] and Jaber [7] could be seen to have helped with the case of the selected women in this group. Mentoring and female role models who have made a success of their roles as leaders were a major factor in the last four in encouraging more female academics in position of leadership in the case of the institution considered in this research.


Going by our experience at TASUED it will take the women who are role models to put on persistent and persuasive effort in advocacy for and serve as role models to increase female participation in leadership. There is the need for purposeful interventions as depicted by the stories of these women in enhancing women’s confidence and self-esteem, empowerment, capacity-building, encouraging women to be more competitive, assertive and risk-taking. In addition by removing the systemic barriers to include gender mainstreaming, institutional transformation e.g. gender equality policies, processes and practices, challenging discriminatory structures, gender impact assessments, audits and reviews and finally helping women through support system to live a balance life between work and family.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Directorate of Academic Planning, Quality Assurance and ResearchTai Solarin University of EducationIjebu OdeNigeria

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