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

AuthorOkeke-Ihejirika, Philomina E.

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...

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