‘Toxic’ leadership hurts women in South African universities

Study author says results demonstrate pervasive nature of patriarchy in higher education

October 19, 2021
sign with the word danger written in three languages. English, Afrikaans, Zulu
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Female staff in South African universities are on the receiving end of high levels of “toxic” leadership, according to a study.

Delegates to a conference on female leadership in South Africa were asked to say to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements describing traits of toxic leadership.

Of the 48 attendees who completed the online survey, the participants overwhelmingly either “agreed’ or “strongly agreed” that their line manager embodied the 30 toxic behaviours they were presented with.

The report authors gave “strongly disagreed” a score of 1, rising to a score of 6 for “strongly agreed” and calculated the mean scores. The statement “acts only in the best interest of his/her next promotion” had the highest levels of agreement, with a score of 5.71. Other statements with very high averages include: “assumes that he/she is destined to enter the highest ranks of my organisation”, 5.54; “will ignore ideas that are contrary to his/her own”, 5.52; and “speaks poorly about subordinates to other people in the workplace”, 5.29.

Even the statement with the lowest mean, “invades the privacy of subordinates”, scored 4.65 out of a potential 6, according to a paper published in Higher Education Policy.

The questions were divided into five areas of toxic leadership: self-promotion; abusive supervision; unpredictability, such as explosive outbursts; narcissism; and authoritarian leadership. The mean score for all areas was at least a 5. The narcissism category had the highest score – 5.52.

The respondents ranged from members of the executive management committees and executive deans down to lecturers.

Co-author Tessie Herbst, a psychologist who works in academic leadership development at Tshwane University of Technology, said she had been surprised to note that, in some areas, female staff in management roles experienced higher levels of toxicity than more junior women. This was the case for both abusive supervision and authoritarian leadership, she said.

The survey also included qualitative questions. One participant described the fear she experienced because of her manager’s unpredictability; this left her “afraid to trigger a similar outburst”, which then resulted in “withdrawals from engagement with him”.

One commented that fighting between juniors was “seen as good” by leadership. Another said of their line manager, “If I show him clear evidence of something he has done wrong, he will still deny it or say he does not remember it.”

The participants described in strong terms how toxic leadership adversely affected employee morale and productivity. One said the poor leadership led to “anxiety and emotional draining”; another said it resulted in high staff turnover caused by emotional stress.

Respondents also mentioned suffering a loss of confidence in themselves and low self-esteem, the authors say.

Dr Herbst said the results showed the extent to which South Africa’s patriarchal society had influenced how leadership was viewed, even in higher education, with male traits of aggressiveness rewarded over thoughtfulness and compassion.

The problem was that “rather than seeing the need to fix the system, women feel like they need to fix themselves”, particularly as universities readily send them on “female leadership courses” to do so, she continued. This results in many of them becoming “toxic leaders” themselves.

Dr Herbst noted that the qualitative data showed that respondents sometimes experienced toxic leadership from women, as well as from men.

“We need to change the culture to universities. We are in denial about gender bias and the characteristics being valued,” she said. “We must value the diversity of what women bring to leadership, instead of just promoting more of the same.”


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Reader's comments (3)

I imagine living in South Africa, as society implodes with criminality looting and killing, the least of your problems is disliking the management style of your institution!
I imagine actually living and working in a place, rather than just reading the comments section of U.K. tabloids, leads to being better informed.
A similar study should be conducted and this time the survey should be sent to men who reports to female line managers.