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Asserting agency by negotiating patriarchy: Nigerian women's experiences within university administrative structures.

This paper focuses on how African women negotiate the administrative structures of universities as subordinates as well as agents, based on three Nigerian examples. Gender relations within these institutions capture the unequal social status that formal education usually confers on women and men along with its cultural and colonial inscriptions. But as disenabling as this tertiary academic terrain might be, Nigerian women still find ways to negotiate power and mobilize agency in order to enhance their status. This case study exposes the various ways that women creatively interact with a fundamentally patriarchal structure to navigate varying configurations of power in a public space where their presence remains a transgression to established norms. It also suggests conclusively that women's qualified status and limited participation in decision making could undermine efforts to transform Nigerian universities.


This study explores the dynamics of gender relations in Nigeria's university administration, based on the experiences of women in three institutional contexts: the University of Nigeria (UNN), a federal public institution founded in 1960, the year Nigeria gained its political independence from Britain; Nnamdi Azikiwe University (UNIZIK), a federal public institution founded in 1999; and Madonna University (MU), a private Christian institution established in 1999. The three universities are located in southeastern Nigeria. Similar to other first generation universities in Nigeria, UNN was established to meet the demands for human capital in a postcolonial era. In contrast, UNIZIK and MU reflect the more recent trend of higher education's massification. (1)

The study attempts to capture the experiences of women academics and administrators in the academic and nonacademic ranks. It highlights, in particular, the creative ways these women negotiate their interactions with male employees in order to sustain their privileges or build agency. Further research and contributions to similar streams of discourse have allowed me to place the participants' views in a broader historical context that captures recent debates in the field. (2) Although the field work for this study was completed awhile ago, my extensive review of the literature as well as my personal observations as an adjunct professor, research fellow, and visiting professor in a number of Nigerian universities, suggest that the trends and data analyzed below still exist. (3)

Women's roles in the administration of African universities underscore the centrality of gender in efforts directed towards their transformation. Existing literature suggests, for instance, that the neglect of gender as a crucial component of institutional culture, administration, and curriculum development has undermined the capacity of African universities to compete globally. (4) In the 1970s, debates on gender and higher education in sub-Saharan Africa (henceforth referred to as Africa) dwelt largely on women's poor access and underrepresentation. (5) With the emergence of a thriving international women's movement from the mid-1980s, these debates expanded to include African women's role as equal partners with men in nation building. (6) The momentum to expand African women's opportunities in higher education has, however, been hindered in part by endemic political crises and economic recessions heightened by the drastic structural adjustment policies (SAP) of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. (7)

Nevertheless, the need to harness women's potential contributions as an "untapped resource" remains on the political agenda, especially with the growing importance of information in a highly competitive global community. In more recent times, the discourse has shifted to questions about women's agency, voice, and power in the administration of the African university. African women, a good number of scholars argue, have increased their representation and presence in universities, but they are not yet in a position to think and act for themselves, contribute to policy making in significant terms or confront an institutional culture that renders them subordinates to their male counterparts. (8) The gains made by women at this level, some insist, have not substantively improved their status or roles in academia. (9)

Like other regions of the world, African systems of higher education inherited social inequities that are rooted in history and tradition. (10) These inequalities are, in part, submerged in a colonial experience that severely reconfigured gender relations within and outside the family to women's disadvantage. Colonization, for instance, weakened many of the indigenous support systems that enabled women to assert some level of agency in their lives, especially in terms of decision making as well as access to economic resources and social opportunities. (11) The postcolonial systems of governance and decision making rendered women second class citizens to men with the boundaries of their public (e.g. participation in paid work and politics) and private lives (e.g. cultural expectations for marriage, procreation, and gender division of labor) firmly defined. The reallocations of male and female roles meant that women have to juggle the asymmetries of both indigenous and western cultures. (12)

These historical invasions are evident in the institutional culture and gendered hierarchies within the administrative structures of African universities. (13) By the turn of the twentieth century, western formal education had taken root across Africa with different agendas for boys and girls. Universities, in particular, were specifically designed to prepare African men as future leaders and civil servants in their countries. In contrast, African women's training was meant to prepare them for their role as housewives in an emerging elite society. (14) Higher education, in particular, reinforces many sexist patterns rooted in both indigenous and western cultures. Gender segregation in higher education overlays different social expectations, experiences and values. It also creates boundaries systemic in terms of where women can enter, what they can do and how far they can go. The burden of reproductive work, for instance, is largely placed on women's shoulders regardless of their professional ambitions. This limits women's access to higher education as well as the utility of their training received. (15)

Recent feminist discourse increasingly calls into question women's limited voice and power in the administration of higher education. (16) This discourse has opened up a terrain for interrogating the dynamics of gender relations and representation in pedagogy, scholarship, and administration within Nigeria's higher education. (17) Nigerian women's representation in university administration, however, points to relations of power that tend to resist any initiatives for transformation. (18) From the academic ranks to the administrative hierarchies, men predominate both in numbers and in seniority. Nigerian female academics and nonacademic staff still occupy a problematic status in higher education as subordinately positioned "others" whose presence could be tolerated, but not totally embraced. (19) Men are still considered as the ideal leaders unburdened by social roles and expectations. In contrast, women's professional identities are often inscribed into their "primary" roles as wives and mothers. Women's capacity to administer is often assessed in terms of socially determined assumptions about how well they could navigate domestic and formal portfolios.

Not surprisingly, Nigerian women's low participation in decision making does not often receive a critical interrogation. Unlike their male counterparts, most women who seek or find themselves in leadership positions will have to wrestle with the competing loyalties of work and family responsibilities. (20) Their entrance into a male establishment is still considered a social transgression that challenges the established patriarchal relations of power. How Nigerian women negotiate these relations of power within a largely patriarchal establishment in order to assert some degree of agency is the subject of this analysis.


This study adopts a general feminist perspective, but places the analysis of the participants' experiences within a postcolonial feminist theoretical

framework. From a general feminist standpoint, gender refers to "a complex system of personal and social relations of domination and power through which women and men are socially created and maintained and through which they gain access to power and material resources or are allocated status within society." (21) Existing feminist literature demonstrates that gender impacts the lives of both men and women. It operates as a crucial marker of social inequality, which is a crucial indicator of development. (22) Gender does not operate in a vacuum; it is often nested in problematic complex intersections with other forms of inequalities such as race, class, ethnicity, and religion. (23) Thus gender relations are constituted within a fundamentally systemic social inequality between men and women across the world. (24) As Connell argues, "there is an ordering of versions of femininity and masculinity at the level of the whole society ... [which is] centred on a single structural fact, the global dominance of men over women." (25) Patriarchy, she further argues, is legitimated by "the configuration of gender practice[s] which" sustains it in society. (26)

A postcolonial feminist theoretical framework departs from any standard interpretations of "culture" as the root cause of Africa women's problems. (27) It places African women's experiences in the context of a western colonial history that has "gendered" and racialized them in different ways. (28) Postcolonial feminist debates also emphasize the need to capture the specificities of social contexts, including the meanings women give to their lived experiences. To neglect the varying specificities that this plurality creates "ultimately robs them of their historical and political agency." (29) Each setting responds to the peculiar dynamics created by indigenous culture, colonization, and emerging global trends. These dynamics give rise to social situations that are constantly recreated and women actively engage them in overt and covert terms.

Postcolonial feminist viewpoints also attempt to avoid the conventional depictions of African women as powerless victims of social oppression, by problematizing conventional notions of status and agency in feminist discourse. In the succinct words of Kandiyoti, "women strategize within a set of concrete constraints that reveal and define the blue print of the ... 'patriarchal bargain' of any given society; moreover, patriarchal bargains are not timeless or immutable entities, but are susceptible to historical transformations that open up new areas of struggle and renegotiation or the relations between genders." (30) Patriarchal structures have their own unique characteristics that are constantly recreated by the gender relations they configure. Although there are similarities in the configurations of patriarchal structures across Africa, particular contexts produce their own specificities.


This case study was based on the general principles of qualitative research. I set out in 2007 to explore the gender dynamics of university administration in the aforementioned Nigerian universities based on the following research questions: a) What challenges do the structure of and relationships embedded in Nigerian universities' administrations present for women and men of different ranks in both the academic and nonacademic field? b) How do men and women negotiate these challenges? c) In what ways could the insights gained from the participants' experiences contribute meaningfully to current debates in the field? These questions guided the development of a semi-structure interview guide for the study.

The participants were selected through word-of-mouth and snow ball sampling. I interviewed thirty male and female academic and nonacademic staff members between thirty and sixty years of age in the arts, social science, and science faculties, focusing on gender in university administration mainly as a social interaction that embeds various facets of power relations rather than targeting only female administrators. Thus my sample was purposively structured to reasonably capture the diversity of women's interactions with university administration as academics and nonacademic staff of various ranks. Given its qualitative nature, the study focused on the depth of insights provided by participants and makes no sweeping generalizations beyond the commonly shared experiences identified in existing literature. The sample was made up of individuals of various professional ranks, including administrators. This paper focuses on the voices of the fifteen women in the sample, eight of whom were academics, including four women who were single, divorced, or widowed. All the interviews were transcribed, manually coded, and analyzed. The responses of both academic and nonacademic staff were analyzed as a female collective with uniquely distinct specific experiences. To maintain confidentiality, their names have been replaced with numbers.

The findings of the study suggest that Nigerian women's interactions with university administration do not register a bold and overt attack at the inequities of gender. Nevertheless, these interactions are constituted in various manners to build agency and gain loyalties. Female administrators deploy social categories such as marital status, age, and attachments to men of higher ranks to assert their own agendas. They are also able to "perform" their formal duties adeptly by assuming a maternal stance that reduces the chances of resistance from or confrontation with male and female colleagues of various ranks. In the Nigerian academic setting, women administrators must also deal with subsets of gender relations that intersect with class, ethnicity, and religion, among others, because the boundaries of these collegial interactions go beyond the ivory tower. Women in the lower ranks also have some bargaining chips because their status in the university also depends on who they are and know both within and outside the university. There are therefore no straightforward channels through which women could address the systematic forms of exclusions they experience within the formal administrative hierarchies.


The UNN motto, "To Restore the Dignity of Man," succinctly conveys, on the one hand, the great optimism with which newly independent African states embraced higher education as the stimulant to a renaissance that will reverse the ravages of slavery and colonization. (31) The motto is also symbolic, capturing, on the other hand, the patriarchal prescriptions embedded in social articulations of the role of the ivory tower in postcolonial Nigeria. UNN has unabashedly held on to this masculinization of "human capital" despite women's increased presence in, as well as decades of, feminist debates about Nigeria's higher education. Enugu, an hour's drive away from Nsukka and one of Nigeria's oldest cities, is home to UNN's second campus and houses many of its professional faculties such as medicine, law, and business administration.

The UNN female employees that were interviewed consisted of two senior administrators in the nonacademic cadres, a full professor and previous head of a department, and a junior lecturer who was a graduate assistant. In comparison to men, UNN female academics were a minority in terms of representation and participation in decision making. Most of those interviewed were of the view that women had made some progress, but insisted, however, that there was plenty of room for improvement. According to a highly placed female academic in the arts, a woman in her fifties with grown-up children, the major challenge rested with the relations of gender at home, how capable each woman was in bargaining with her husband:
Some of these problems come from home because you need to devote time
if you want to make it in academics. You need to do research. You need
to attend conferences. But what if... the husband says no ... ? And
with the sort of set up we have here where the husbands are sort of
emperors ... [You have to] advise, negotiate with your husband, help
him to understand. [UNN DS220034:38]

Other female lecturers echoed similar sentiments about gender relations in the domestic sphere. The division of labor, UNN women argued, severely compromised women's attempts to climb the career ladder. Compared to men, much fewer women would make it to the ranks of associate and full professors, given the gendering of roles within the family because female academics had to juggle their career with their domestic obligations. The demands of child-bearing, especially, weighed much heavier on younger women and made the "race" to the top even slower. Among other challenges, women, more than men, must also guard against the threats posed by extended family and polygamous incursions. Although most of the married interviewees were in monogamous relationships, they seemed clearly aware of the damage that such threats could do, especially to their social image.

The formal academic setting also presented its own challenges. As one UNN female administrator in the nonacademic ranks points out, a female professional who works in the academy must accept the fact that she is in a male domain; she must prove to those around her that she earned her position:
You have to work ten times as hard as a male in the same cadre to be
recognized....The prejudice is always there ... [men] assume that you
will have children,... go on maternity leave; your kid may be sick and
you'd want to take that child to the hospital. When you are at the top,
sometimes you feel that there is some form of resentment because you
are a female. [DS220029:43]

Most of the UNN interviewees appeared to accept the notion that due to existing historical inequities, women may have to wait awhile before getting into certain positions. They also admitted that the structure, risks, and heavy responsibilities of top level administration, as presently constituted, may not lend itself to women's meaningful participation in decision making. Most of them, however, are eager to move up the ladder. They appeared determined to succeed where other women have not and have accepted the fact that positions of power and influence will not be handed to them on a golden platter. But their enthusiasm is notably muted; they recognized that the heavily infused patriarchal hierarchy tied to such portfolios may not easily yield to the ambitions of qualified and hardworking women.

Interviewees consistently described women academic administrators as disciplined, hardworking, and above board, in contrast to male counterparts. However, when it comes to their personal experiences with academic administrators, in general, another picture emerges. There seem to be two main styles of administrator-subordinate relations: 1) the heavy-handed and tow-the-line approach associated with male bosses, and 2) the soft-handed and team-spirit approach associated with female bosses. Women who veered towards the first approach were (may be) admired as "the Thatcher who gets things done" but only from a distance and probably by those in higher authority. Those in the junior ranks stigmatized what they perceived as a form of heavy-handedness coming from a woman. In many instances, the "heavy-handed" female administrators expended a good deal of time and energy trying to establish their professional authority. They knew that the stigma attached to their style of administration could undermine their capacity to gain the trust and loyalty of those under them.

Marital status, parental status, and age were identified as strong mediators of women's ability to assert their authority, especially over junior colleagues. UNN female academics unanimously admitted that the unmarried female administrator must be ready to deal with the social stigma associated with her marital status. Perhaps the strongest factor that defined a woman's authority was whether or not she had children. The "mother figure" especially for older women comes across as an effective ameliorator of the gap between female bosses and junior colleagues: authority clothed in a feminine garb that society would accept. Speaking from her own personal experience, an older female administrator noted, for instance, that her age and maternal status provided some degree of buffer against personal attacks. Although separated from her husband, she is older and has grown-up children. Hence, she does not experience the kind of stigma that younger single women with no children often has to deal with. She points out, however, that living without a husband still leaves something of a dent in her professional status.

The maternal stance, according to the UNN academic staff, bridges, to some extent, the male-female authority gap. In the staff's view, the maternal stance would serve female administrators better rather than the boss image, if they wanted to garner respect and loyalty from both male and female colleagues. (32) Older female administrators, particularly those with grown-up children, often located their authority within a mothering role. Their maternal approach to dealing with both female and male subordinates significantly reduces the chances of confrontation, especially with junior colleagues. The gender division of work within the home, UNN female academics equally noted, would invariably delay or prevent women's entrance into certain positions. Those in their childbearing years are not likely to take on positions that could conflict with domestic obligations. Virtually all the nonacademic administrators agreed that social perceptions of women as wives, mothers, and the "natural" subordinates of men affected their interactions with both male and female colleagues, place in the academy, and voice in decision making. It also means that a woman's social status could be enhanced or diminished by her husband's social status. Interestingly, not much is said about a man's status. It is unusual, UNN women explained, to find an unattached man within the age range represented in the study sample. They did not discuss or offer further comments on how a woman's social status could impact her husband's professional career.

The experiences of those in the nonadministrative ranks equally revealed the two different administrative styles. Male and female administrators tended to approach their relationship with subordinates in two major ways. The softer approach works better for a female administrator, while the harder approach works better for her male colleagues. UNN women pointed out, however, that in some instances men strategically assumed a softer but no less authoritative approach. What is viewed as the soft "paternal" approach, the "daddy" image, according a female nonacademic administrator in her fifties with grown-up children, could command considerable loyalty, especially from female junior colleagues. (33)

For the female staff at UNN, it seems, the struggle to improve their profile in academia appears to be left largely in women's hands. Apparently, many of them do not strongly question their responsibility to fend for themselves in the academy. A number of them lightheartedly voiced the popular saying, "what a man can do a woman can do better" and left unexplored the burden society places on women's capacity to succeed. There does not appear to be any strong motivation to confront the inequities of gender equity in how the academy is governed. Rather, the point of emphasis appeared to rest on deploying accessible social instruments to assert their own specific agendas.


UNIZIK, a third generation university, is located at Awka, a modest-sized town that was hurriedly converted into a new capital city for Anambra State. UNIZIK is also located in South Eastern Nigeria and was established in 1991 as a federal university with academic and professional faculties, including medicine and law. Its mission statement, to anchor "teaching and research ... on the needs of the immediate environment," reflects a shift from the UNN's Pan African anti-colonial view of higher education. UNIZIK appears to embrace the practical goal of boosting access to higher education. A continuing economic decline coupled with greater ethnic divide have meant that the third generation of federal universities, such as UNIZIK, were launched with very little infrastructural base. They have not attracted as much public financial support and prestige as their older counterparts like UNN.

The UNIZIK female interviewees included a head of an academic department, one lecturer in the arts, and two senior administrators in the academic and nonacademic cadres, respectively. The views expressed by two female academics in the arts, one an unmarried administrator in her forties, and the other a married lecturer also in her forties, were sharply different than their colleagues. According to the former, the university belongs to men and women and the importance of women's active participation in university decisionmaking forums whether as staff or as students cannot be overlooked:
If you are not represented in something I don't know how you can say
you are a part of it. And I mean effective representation [is] not just
putting a robot there. [DS220020]

While the other UNIZIK women interviewees strongly endorsed gender equity at all levels of university administration and lamented the rigid definition of gender roles, they refrained from any direct comments about the views expressed above. They argued that UNIZIK women, despite their under-representation in teaching and administration, projected a much stronger profile compared to UNN and MU women. In their view, putting a consistent but delicate pressure on the university administration to make improvements would yield betters results than taking a bold stance against the inequities foisted on them by the system they work for. UNIZIK authorities, in their view, have made some appreciable attempts to raise awareness of gender issues by introducing, for example, one compulsory gender related course in four academic faculties. For the two female "outliers," however, these are only preliminary steps that do not address substantive gender inequities embedded in the system within which they operated.

Women academics in the administrative ranks equally received top marks at UNIZIK. Compared to their male counterparts, they are considered highly disciplined, more hardworking, sincere, and less liable to corruptive practices. But similar to the UNN situation, these commendations do not necessarily translate into a reasonably amiable relationship with colleagues. Similar to the case at UNN, UNIZIK women also identified the two major styles of leadership--the hard and soft approaches. It all has to do with the struggle to forcibly apply an already biased norm in a formal contemporary academic setting where it has no place, a female academic administrator in the arts argues. Based on her own experience, she explains, men try to exert a superior social status, expecting female bosses to bow to what she views as cultural inequity that should have no standing in the academy.
They feel I am overbearing. If I give them instruction sometimes they
will not carry it out.... They would if it was coming from a man ...
[DS220020: 20]

It does not help that this administrator is unmarried. Her experience vividly portrays the vulnerable status of unmarried women in academia, especially those considered not quite old enough to assume such a position. All it takes, she explained, is a brief exchange of words for the staff under one's supervision, especially the males, to "throw it at you; that you are not married." To her, such outbursts should not be entertained in a formal work setting. They make the life of unmarried female academics like her very difficult, while according undue privilege to married women. The latter could use their marital status to nurture the loyalties of other colleagues, especially those in the junior ranks.

UNIZIK's female administrators outside the academic ranks equally uphold the origins of gender inequity, the boundaries of social action, and women's responsibility for pushing the status quo a little further. They also attest to the significant role that marital status, age, and parental status played in their interactions with colleagues. In most cases, some degree of diplomacy functions best to work productively with junior male colleagues. One UNIZIK female administrator in her fifties argues that projecting the spirit of team work from a maternal stance is a strategy that could work wonders for the working mother in academia:
I give them the impression that the administration belongs to all of
us. I always seek their opinion. I never had any kind of outbursts.

Older women feel quite comfortable with being addressed by younger colleagues and acquaintances as "Mommy," "Mama," or "Madam." The administrators in the group perceived their presumed maternal role as a natural sentiment that should be employed to make life easier within and outside the workplace. These female administrators also admitted that assuming a maternal stance could reduce the occurrence of incidents that lead to a matching of wits and the testing of one's temperament. Such scenarios could force one, on occasion, to direct more energy and time towards proving that "you can perform like men, if not outshine them," than actually attending to real administrative matters. The trend of women entering into what may be considered the potential "nonviable" administrative ranks is also gradually taking root at UNIZIK. There seems to be a clear recognition and acceptance that the higher ranks drawn from the academic staff are virtually the exclusive preserve of male colleagues.


Founded in 1999, MU is among the many private universities that emerged in the past three decades. Unlike Nigerian public universities that have gained a longer social and systematic presence within the larger society, universities like MU are still a new development. In structure, mission, and policies, private universities like MU, run by religious organizations, seek to distance themselves further from all "secular" institutions. The entrance of MU into Nigeria's higher education scene set the stage for the emergence of Christian universities, many of them a joint effort between local and foreign missionaries. The volunteer spirit of missionary work has a strong presence at MU. It is a relatively small university; it projects a high and rising profile for women in its administrative ranks. But most of its academics and administrators appear to hold strong conservative views about gender relations in formal settings.

The MU women employees I interviewed included two former heads of academic departments and a lecturer. Women in the nonacademic staff were not available at the time of the study. It was difficult finding a time between their work and family schedules to conduct interviews. The administrative culture of MU reflects its Christian tradition. Decisions about who goes where and how work is organized, for instance, appear to rest in the hands of the founder of the institution. In this regard, MU may not be held to the same standards as UNN and UNIZIK because it does not directly answer to or provide a step-by-step justification of many of its decisions to tax payers.

MU female interviewees largely endorsed UNN and UNIZIK women's explanations of the roots of gender inequity in academia. They also condemned the existing gender division of labor, particularly one which, in their view, doubled their workload. One female academic administrator in the sciences, a woman in her thirties married with young children, admits that women would want things changed, but points out that there is not much they can do at present:
It is obvious ... that the men will not help you ... even if they
support your profession. You will practice your profession and also do
your work at home. They will not help you.... All the work in the house
will be left for you. That is the African mentality which needs to be
changed. [DS220052]

Similar to their colleagues at UN and UNIZIK, the female administrators at MU are generally applauded for their hard work and disciplined nature. MU female administrators in both the academic and nonacademic ranks are also considered to be above board when it comes to matters of accountability.

MU female interviewees briefly aired their concerns about the sexual abuse of staff members by male senior colleagues. Female academics, they pointed out, are often exempt from accusations of sexual abuse in their relationships with subordinates. They insisted on getting the job done and demanded results from subordinates without any second thoughts. Male administrators, they argued, are more likely than their female colleagues to fall prey to incidences or accusations of sexual abuse. MU women emphasized, however, that many of their male colleagues would not compromise their reputation by engaging in such acts. But in a workplace steeped in religious ordinance and clearly stated moral expectations, every male colleague, they explained, must tread carefully. In general, MU women noted, most of their male colleagues approached their interaction with women, student or staff, with caution.

MU women also felt that female academic administrators are also more likely to maintain a working relationship that prevents subordinates, especially the female staff, from exploiting questionable reasons to excuse themselves from duty. This is mainly because, she explained, women are more comfortable with male authority; women expect to attract more sympathy from male superiors than female superiors. Men, MU women explained, are also often not very comfortable with probing into women's personal lives.

Similar to the case at UNN and UNIZIK, MU female academic administrators, it appears, are admired from a distance, but descriptions of personal experiences with academic female administrators seemed to take on a harder edge. Details of personal relationships, especially with male subordinates and colleagues, conveyed similar gendered perceptions held by UNN and UNIZIK women. For instance, MU women take the view that female academic administrators are more diligent on the job than their male counterparts.

In the MU context, the maternal stance equally comes in handy as a strategy that could mellow the hardness associated with female authority. The institutional culture at MU is unequivocally patriarchal. It was and still is legitimized by selective Christian and cultural notions of gender roles, expectations, and hierarchy. For instance, the primary role of women in the family is not to question male authority; the female staff, regardless of rank, is also expected to come up with creative ways to juggle the challenges of family and work. Although MU women do not embrace any of the justifications for the existing gender division of labor, they agreed that things were not likely to change in the near future. They are also aware that women cannot move up the ladder through hard work and determination alone. In their view, women are not prepared yet, by reason of history, primary role, and social expectation, to compete with men beyond certain levels in the hierarchy of the university decision-making process. The structures and content of university administrative portfolios, most of them agreed, are not inviting to women; they are made by and structured for men.

Compared to UNN and UNIZIK, however, MU administrative structure leaves an impression of an environment where women are hedged-in with much less room to register their presence in substantive terms. One may not have to go so far to trace the reasons why things are the way they are at MU. Its religious traditions, backed in part by cultural notions of how men and women should comport themselves, leave little room for women to question the status quo.


This study set out to explore the challenges that Nigerian university administrative structures pose to women as academics and administrators of various ranks, the creative strategies women deploy to navigate these challenges, and how their insights could inform current debates in the field. Women's experiences at UNN, UNIZIK, and MU appear to reflect the established patterns of gender inequity in African university administrative structures. (34) Gender equity in concept and in praxis does not seem to have acquired much nuance. The fact that women have been historically shortchanged is, for the most part, wholly accepted. While the need to address this disparity may be entertained at various junctures, there are no concerted efforts to transform the system. Although a number of policy reforms have been introduced in some instances, they are not substantive enough to make a significant impact on the status quo.

The main contributions of this study lie in the manner in which the analysis of the experiences of women in the study problematizes existing discourse. First, gender relations in university administration are explored as a social interaction that needs to be examined through the eyes of university staff of various ranks. These multiple lenses present a broader context for understanding the female administrator in academia. Second, it exposes the problematic and complex nature of social interactions in academia rather than acquiescing to simplistic narratives about African women's vulnerabilities in the ivory tower. This case study highlights the creative ways these women negotiate their interaction in order to sustain their privileges or build agency. Far from any simplistic understandings of these interactions as rooted in colonial re-inscriptions of African cultures' oppressive hold on women, their strategies point to the specificities of complex configurations of power and agency that different "patriarchal arrangements" could produce. The women interviewed for this study are resourceful and resilient members of their society who creatively navigate the challenges of everyday life. (35) They actively engage disenabling social arrangements and make conscious decisions as to how to navigate or subvert them.

Third, the study emphasizes the specificities of each social context. As the three Nigerian examples portray, "asserting agency" requires strategic negotiations with relevant actors in a patriarchal terrain, which provides them with limited options for confronting inequities. Their shifting stances in various formal spaces could be interpreted as the calculated steps of subordinately placed "actors" who creatively engage familiar political terrains to sustain or build agency. (36) It is also important to recognize that Nigerian women's experiences intersect with other areas of their lives, creating empowering opportunities to exercise some level of influence. (37) As Johnson argues, "women's identities are more than the sum of the parts that oppress them; they are made up of potentially empowering lived experiences, such as familial relations, motherhood, education, values, and vocation." (38)

This article has presented a critical analysis of the dynamics of gender relations in the administration of Nigerian universities based on the experiences of a qualitative sample of female academic and nonacademic staff. It has explored the experiences of Nigerian women in academia both as subordinates who occupy a precarious status in the terrains they navigate, as well as actors that exercise agency by deploying relevant notions of power and privilege. Recent debates in the field also lend weight to the viewpoint expressed by participants in this study; women's place and status in Nigerian universities have not changed significantly. (39) My review of related literature, however, highlights the thin literature on which these debates are anchored. What the existing, albeit sparse, literature has established is that gender issues are central to efforts aimed at transforming Nigeria's universities. Hence, research on the dynamics of gender relations, particularly the qualitative experiences of women, will not only contribute greatly to emerging knowledge in the field, but will also provide crucial insights for improving policy and practice.

Regardless of the possible trajectories that debates on Nigerian women in university administration may take in the future, it is important to recognize women as cultural agents who have access to knowledge bases that will contribute to transforming higher education. (40) This stance is both intellectual and political because it raises some fundamental questions about voice, power, and responsibility in the content and management of African higher education. (41) At present, Nigerian women understand that they are operating in a man's world, an institution steeped in gendered inequities inscribed by both culture and colonization. Confronting the discriminations they suffer does not only require a broader capacity in numbers to build a political platform, it would also demand the political will of those in power as well as the support of male actors within and outside academia who consider women equal partners with men in nation building.


(1.) Abiola Odejide, Bola Akanji, and Kolade Odekunle, "Does Expansion Mean Inclusion in Nigerian Higher Education?" Women's Studies International Forum 29, no. 6 (2006): 552-561.

(2.) Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika, "Gender, Contemporary Realities, and the Challenges of Reconstructing Identities in a Transnational Context," in Africa in the Age of Globalization: Perceptions, Misperceptions and Realities, ed. Edward Shizha and Lamine Diallo (Toronto: Ashgate, 2015), 185-199.

(3.) Ane Turner Johnson, "Performing and Defying Gender: An Exploration of the Lived Experiences of Women Higher Education Administrators in Sub-Saharan Africa," Educational Management Administration & Leadership 42, no. 6 (2014): 835-850; Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika, "Gender Equity in Africa's Institutions of Tertiary Education: Beyond Access and Representation," in Decolonizing Philosophies of Education, ed. Ali A. Abdi (Boston: Sense Publishers, 2012), 147-161; Nico Cloete, "The PhD and the Ideology of 'No Transformation,'" University World News, August 28, 2015.

(4.) Bahieh Mohajeri, Mahani Mokhtar, and Farhad Balash, "Challenges Encountering the Participation of Women in Senior Administrative Status in Higher Education," International Education Studies 8, no. 13 (2015): 9-16; Emeka E. Okafor, Ayodele O. Eagbemi, and Adedoyin R. Hassan, "Barriers to Women Leadership and Managerial Aspirations in Lagos, Nigeria: An Empirical Analysis," African Journal of Business Management 5, no. 16 (2011): 6717-6726.

(5.) Mairead Dunne and Yusuf Sayed, "Transformation and Equity: Women and Higher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa," International Studies in Educational Administration 30, no. 1 (2002): 50-65.

(6.) Ali Abdi and Ailie Cleghorn, eds., Issues in African Education: Sociological Perspectives (London: Palgrave, 2005); Sheila Bunwaree, "African Renaissance: The Need for Gender-Inclusive Developmental States," International Journal of African Renaissance Studies 2, no. 1 (2007): 73-87.

(7.) Damtew Teferra and Philip G. Altbach, "African Higher Education: Challenges for the 21st Century," Higher Education 47 (2004): 21-50; Michael Kevane, Women and Development in Africa: How Gender Works (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2004).

(8.) Folake Onayemi, "Finding a Place: Women's Struggle for Political Authority in Classical and Nigerian Societies," Women's History Review 16, no. 3 (2007): 297-309; Odejide, Akanji, and Odekunle, "Does Expansion Mean Inclusion in Nigerian Higher Education?"

(9.) Okekc-Ihejirika, "Gender Equity in Africa's Institutions of Tertiary Education"; Amina Mama, "Restore, Reform but do not Transform: The Gender Politics of Higher Education in Africa," Journal of Higher Education in Africa 1, no. 1 (2003): 101-125.

(10.) Mohajeri, Mokhtar, and Balash, "Challenges Encountering the Participation of Women in Senior Administrative Status in Higher Education"; Apollos Nwauwa, Imperialism, Academe, and Nationalism: Britain and University Education for Africans, 1860-1960 (London: F. Cass, 1994).

(11.) Claire Robertson, "Developing Economic Awareness: Changing Perspectives in the Studies of African Women, 1976-1986," Feminist Studies 13, no. 1 (1987): 97-135.

(12.) Onayemi, "Finding A Place: Women's Struggle for Political Authority in Classical and Nigerian Societies"; Simi Afonja, "Changing Patterns of Gender Stratification in West Africa," in Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development, ed. Irene Tinker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 198-209.

(13.) Cloete, "The PhD and the Ideology of 'No Transformation'"; Nwauwa, Imperialism, Academe, and Nationalism; Eva Rathgeber, "Women and Higher Fducation in Africa: Access and Choices," in Women's Higher Education in Comparative Perspectives, ed. Gail Kelly and Sheila Slaughter (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 57.

(14.) Okechukwu Ikejiani, Nigerian Education (Lagos: Longman, 1960), 82-94.

(15.) Rathgeber, "Women and Higher Education in Africa"; Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika, "Higher Education for Africa's Women: Partners With or Cheerleaders for Men?" in African Universities in the Twenty-First Century: Knowledge and Society, Volume II, ed. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza and Adebayo Olukoshi (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2004), 480-492.

(16.) Mama, "Restore, Reform but do not Transform."

(17.) Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika, "Higher Education for Africa's Women: Prospects and Challenges," in African Education and Globalization, ed. Ali Abdi, Korbla P. Pulampu, and George Dei (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 79-92.

(18.) Okafor, Fagbemi, and Hassan, "Barriers to Women Leadership and Managerial Aspirations in Lagos."

(19.) Louise Morley, "Hidden Transcripts: The Micro politics of Gender in Commonwealth Universities," Women's Studies International Forum 29 no. 6 (2006): 543-551.

(20.) Okechukwu Innocent Erne, "The Challenges Facing the Implementation of National Gender Policy in Nigeria," Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research in Business 3, no. 7(2011): 1128-1152.

(21.) IFAD, "An IFAD Approach to Gender Mainstreaming: The Experience of the Latin America and the Caribbean Division," located at

(22.) United Nations, "Progress of the Worlds Women 2015-2016," located at; Jacques Charmes, "Compendium of Gender Statistics in Africa," African Centre for Statistics, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA):

(23.) Patricia Hill Collins,"lntersectionality's Definitional Dilemmas," Annual Review of Sociology 41/1 (2015): 1-20; Louise Morley, "Gender Mainstreaming: Myths and Measurement in Higher Education in Ghana and Tanzania," Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 40, no. 4 (2010): 533-550.

(24.) Joan Acker, "Gendered institutions: From Sex Roles to Gendered Institutions," Contemporary Sociology 21, no. 5 (1992): 565-569.

(25.) W. Raewyn Connell, Gender and Power (Sydney: Allen, Mercer and Urwin, 1987), 183.

(26.) W. Raewyn Connell, Masculinities (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 77.

(27.) Chandra Talpade Mohanty, "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses," Feminist Review 30 (1988): 61-88.

(28.) Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds., third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-313.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) Deniz Kandiyoti, "Bargaining with Patriarchy," in Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspective, ed. Carole McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim (London: Routledge, 2010), 80-81.

(31.) Nwauwa, Imperialism, Academe, and Nationalism.

(32.) Oluwakemi Owoyemi and Olasumbo Olusanya, "Gender: A Precursor for Discriminating Against Women in Paid Employment in Nigeria," American Journal of Business and Management 3, no. 1 (2014): 10-14.

(33.) Constance Benedicta Zulu, "A Comparative Study of Women in Management in Higher Education in South Africa and the United Kingdom (doctoral diss., University of South Africa, 2007).

(34.) Mama, "Restore, Reform but do not Transform"; Okeke-Ihejirika, "Higher Education for Africa's Women."

(35.) Lucy Mkandawire-Valhmu, Peninnah Kako, Jennifer Kibicho, and Patricia E. Stevens, "The Innovative and Collective Capacity of Low-Income East African Women in the Era of HIV/AIDS: Contesting Western Notions of African Women," Health Care for Women International 34, nos. 3-4 (2013): 332-350.

(36.) Johnson, "Performing and Defying Gender."

(37.) Stephanie A. Shields, "Gender: An Intersectionality Perspective," Sex Roles 59 (2008): 201311; Airini, Sunny Collings, Lindsey Conner, Kathryn McPherson, Brenda Midson, and Cheryl, Wilson, "Learning to be Leaders in Higher Education: What Helps or Hinders Women's Advancement as Leaders in Universities?" Educational Management Administration & Leadership 39, no. 1 (2011): 44-62.

(38.) Johnson, "Performing and Defying Gender," 838.

(39.) A. Y. Abdulkareem et al., "A Comparative Analysis of Gender Participation in Educational Administration in Kwara and Osun State-Owned Tertiary Institutions," journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences 3, no. 2 (2011): 430-445.

(40.) Morley, "Hidden Transcripts"; Amina Mama, "The Challenges of Feminism: Gender, Ethics and Responsible Academic Freedom in African Universities," JHEA/RESA 9, nos. 1-2 (2011): 1-23.

(41.) Rudo B. Gaidzanwa, "Alienation, Gender and Institutional Culture at the University of Zimbabwe," Feminist Africa 8 (2007): 60-80.

PHILOMINA E. OKEKE-IHEJIRIKA is the director of the Transnational Initiatives on Gender and Education Research (TIGER) and a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta. Her email address is
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Author:Okeke-Ihejirika, Philomina E.
Publication:Journal of Global South Studies
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Date:Mar 22, 2017
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