The Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), in collaboration with Standard Bank recently hosted a discussion with Professor Cheryl De La Rey, Vice Chancellor of the University of Pretoria (UP). The discussion was held as part of the GIBS HERstory Series – a series of dialogues intended to shine a spotlight on the stories of successful women in business, government and society.

During these sessions women of substance use storytelling to share the highs and lows of their leadership journeys and offer insights on how to craft your own story and reach your destiny. These women generously give their time to empower the younger generation of women leaders. “We are entering a new world for women in leadership positions and there is a need for business in particular to appreciate the significant role women can play in growing business performance and country level competitiveness and break down systematic barriers,” said Shireen Chengadu, director of the GIBS Centre of Leadership and Dialogue.

Professor De La Rey, notched up several firsts when she became vice-chancellor of UP in 2009 – the first woman, the first person of colour and the first English speaker. She grew up in Durban, where she completed her schooling and obtained a BA degree from the former University of Natal, with distinction in Psychology. She then went on to complete an Honours and a Masters degree (both with distinction) and in 1999 was awarded a PhD by the University of Cape Town. “Academically I was a top performer at school, so from a young age I knew I would go to university. What course I would follow was an open question, and I ended up not really knowing what I wanted to do”, says De La Rey.

When she did her doctoral thesis titled “Career narratives of women professors”, it was a time when few women were in senior leadership positions in the country, regardless of sector. New policies were being debated including gender equality where the general approach tended to be focused on capacity building. For her research she interviewed 25 women in senior leadership positions and during this time she noticed many similarities in the feedback she received. “Almost all of the women said that they fell into their high-powered positions accidentally, by luck or coincidence, rather than stating it as an ambitious plan as male counterparts would have explained it,” said Professor De La Rey. To be seen to as ambitious as a woman has sometimes had a negative connotation because it is often deemed as unfeminine and women are more often expected to exude co-operative behaviour rather than competitive behaviour. “It is a stereotype that still manifests itself in today’s modern world.”

She went on to say that in her research she noted that 14 of the women had started their careers as school teachers, nurses, social workers (indicative of the limited career options of the times), Professor De la Rey saw a great deal of similarities between these stories and her own life. Most of the women pointed at a female figure as having influenced their early thinking (mother, aunt or grandmother) which highlights that it is not always a structured mentoring relationship that always makes a difference in one’s life, women leaders are everywhere especially in homes. “My mother has had the biggest influence on my life always stressing to me from the time I was young that education was one’s most important asset as it was going to help me get to where I wanted to go in life”. She further mentioned that her mother gave her two shaping phrases which she still carries with her today: ‘A woman needs to be able to stand on her own two feet’ and ‘every woman must have a good head on her shoulders’.

Professor De La Rey also pins her success on a small decision made by one of her professors that she believes played a key role in getting her to where she is today. She was offered a fee remission and was therefore able to study her honours degree (before this she had resolved to heading towards the teaching route). It often takes someone to realise the potential in another person that propels them to where they are today and she believes that many opportunities are often made possible through changing of contexts. She added that in 2014 many students at UP who had done exceptionally well in the previous year were not able to secure funding through the National Funding Scheme (NFS) offered by the government, a decision had to be made to intervene and R30 million was set aside to help these students with their registration fees. It is small administrative decisions such as this and the ones that helped her in the past that will make a huge difference in people’s lives in the long-run. “Sometimes there is a need for wisdom in decisions as opposed to a rule-based environment,” she added.

Professor De le Rey noted that the playing field is not always level and she cautioned women not to succumb to bullying as it often comes in many guised, from colleagues or even families. She commented many women tend to make career decisions based on what their male counterpart’s career narrative dictates and not often the other way round – it is time to change this ideology.

Women must exercise power, be firm and assertive in decision making and never underestimate the role of mentors and role models and acknowledging men are also great role models and it is important to learn from observational learning.

Professor De la Rey continues to do research and especially on gender issues in higher education.

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