An infographic pinned to the wall of our office lift last week shows the large discrepancy between male and female appointments at different levels of the university. At the top, women are significantly underrepresented; only 4 of the 23 members (17%) of Council and only 61 of the 256 Senate members (24%) are women. At the administrative level, men are in the minority. But the issue really is at the top: A recent article by Xolela Mangcu of UCT’s Department of Sociology in City Press makes the case for both more black and female professors at South African universities. The article notes that only “194 black or African South Africans are professors out of the country’s total of 4 000. This number translates to 4% of the total. The situation is more dire when it comes to women. Only 34 or 0.85% of the total number of South African professors are women.”

Mangcu’s plea for greater equality confuses gender and racial inequality. These two are not the same, and their origins are also very different. I’ll focus on gender. Mangcu was referring to black female professors, of which there is only 34, a low 1.5% of all full professors. AfricaCheck* redid Mangcu’s calculations and it turns out there are 534 female out of a total of 2174 full professors in South Africa, or 25.6%. While it suggests that Stellenbosch is very much on par with what is happening in the rest of the country, it does seem as though women are significantly underrepresented as professors in South Africa.

The critique is labelled against universities, but it is even more valid for the private sector. As an experiment, consider South African businesses that are part of Business Leadership South Africa, an “independent association whose members represent South African big business leadership and major multinational investors”. Of the 76 member companies listed on their website, which include nearly all of South Africa’s largest companies, only 14.4% has a woman in charge. That is 11 percentage points less than the number of women professors in South African universities (25.6%).

It seems like there is no reason to smile if equal numbers of men and women in leadership positions is what we are aiming for. But is equal numbers really the aim? What exactly do we mean when we say we want gender equality? Do we hope to see equal numbers of men and women in all professions? Do we hope to see, for example, equal numbers of men and women at university Senate level, but also at administrative level? Or is gender equality something else? Is gender equality perhaps not the ability of every man and every woman, regardless of their gender, to face the same barriers to entry, the same salary, the same leave, the same career opportunities? If that is true, is gender representation the best way to measure gender equality? What if the median woman have a greater propensity to choose a career that offers her more free time? What if the median woman have a greater propensity to choose a career that has a greater social impact, however defined? What if the median woman chooses to spend more time at home with her children, not because she is forced to but because she actually wants to?
This last question is tricky, right. Because perhaps our long history of unequal relations (at least since the Neolithic Revolution 10000 years ago) has ingrained in all of us the idea that women are better carers and men are better providers, where in reality there might not be such a large biological difference. Yet for the purpose of my argument, whether these preferences are because of genetics or cultural heritage doesn’t really matter. I think we can all agree that the median women has a higher likelihood of not ‘leaning in’, as Sheryl Sandberg writes.

So why this fetish of 50%? Why would we expect to see equal numbers in all professions? What if women are better learners, better connectors or better communicators? What if they work harder at university (and are therefore more likely, ceteris paribus, to become professors than, say, CEOs), live longer, or make better investments? Do we expect to see equal numbers of men and women in all occupations, in all ranks of corporate life, or do we simply want to ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender, has the opportunity to move into whatever occupation or rank or lifestyle they choose? If we choose the latter, we won’t be able to use the ratio of male to female professors and claim injustice, simply because it could signal either discrimination or preference, and we won’t be able to know which.

So how can we identify discrimination, then? Wages and salaries are a good start. Women and men should earn equal pay for equal work, and where this is not happening, the law should step in. But even this could be tricky. Should the (male) players in the Springbok rugby team earn similar salaries to the female players of the women’s team? Both represent their country, and both presumably put in equal effort. But the men’s team create a far larger income for SA Rugby, of course, so I suspect they also earn more. Other benefits, I would argue, should be equal too, like parental leave. Why is it that women get 4 months and men only 3 days? Is that not unfair? In Sweden, which ranks as one of the most gender-egalitarian countries, men and women often get an equal period of time off for parental duties. That not only seems fair, but it also affects the incentives companies face when they hire. Why would you prefer to employ men to women who are nearing child-bearing years when both are ‘penalised’ equally? (I wrote about this last year.)

This is not to deny that there are many places where women are held back simply because they are women, where stereotypes about a women’s place in society exclude their participation. I suspect that much of this is disappearing. Nevertheless, the legacies of past discrimination against female appointments will persist for some time to come (especially in universities, where staff turnover is very low), but new appointments at lower levels certainly reflect more female participation. At Stellenbosch, there are more females than males in Lecturer and Junior Lecturer positions, for example.

So at what stage, one has to ask, is gender no longer a consideration in new appointments? Will this happen only when we have at an equal share of men and women as full professors? Isn’t that a bit paternalistic, a bit social engineery?

Gender equality is not about a fixed ratio of 50% women and 50% men in all spheres of society. That ignores personal preferences, tastes, and choices. A society where we strive for a perfect 50% gender balance everywhere is a society where men and women have lost the agency to act in their own interests.

* Even AfricaCheck’s numbers are slightly wrong. They note that 21 of the 2174 professors’ race is listed as unknown. They claim it’s 0.1% of the total. It is 1%, of course.