• The first female vice-chancellor at the University of Ghana explains how women need support to overcome systemic barriers
  • Nana Aba Appiah Amfo believes that society's expectations and gender roles can limit women.
  • She says that community support is integral to success, and that having more women in higher positions encourages other women.

Societies expect men to achieve, but women need support to overcome systemic barriers, says the first female vice-chancellor at the University of Ghana.

Linguist Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, 51, took up the lead role in late 2021. She says when women and men support each other, they can reach their highest potential.

Linguist Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, first female vice-chancellor of The University of Ghana.
A female pushing barriers.
Image: University of Ghana

You are the University of Ghana’s first female vice-chancellor. What does it take to make it to such a senior position?

It’s a combination of hard work, identifying opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities, and some favour from God. Because I do believe I’m not the only one who works the hardest – yes, I do work hard, but it’s also important to take advantage of opportunities as they come, because they prepare you for positions ahead.

My parents were teachers, they put a premium on education and they did not discriminate as far as their daughters or sons were concerned. They gave me the opportunity to get educated to the highest level that I so desired. They brought me up to believe that I can do anything that I wanted to – anything that my brothers could do, I could also do.

What do you bring to the table as vice-chancellor, and why is it important to have women in senior positions in science and research?

Coming to this position, I intend to drive the growth of this university through technology and humanism. The past two years has taught us we all need to take technology very seriously and we’ve had experiences of what we can use technology for.

In every aspect of the university’s operations – from research management to teaching and learning, to administrative processes, to student management – I intend that technology drives this. But we should not forget that we’re there for the humans … the university exists for the good of the larger society.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Men have dominated our boardrooms, men have dominated academia. Here in my university, the proportion of women academics, that’s just about 30 per cent. And as you can imagine, the higher you go up the ranks, the fewer women that you find.

But, I must say, that it’s a good time at my university, I am the first female vice-chancellor. For the first time too, we have a female chancellor, we also have a female council chair for the first time. It is a source of encouragement to many females out there, but also for males – they dream for themselves, they dream for their wives, their daughters, their sisters.

Your field of expertise is pragmatics, a sub-discipline of linguistics. Can you explain pragmatics?

Pragmatics specifically looks at language use in context. For you to be able to make meaning out of what we say, you almost always need the context. Sometimes you need the history, the religion, the culture, you need the philosophy and so on.

For example, if you have a scientific innovation, which is expected to help farmers increase their yield, how is it that you communicate to that group of farmers who don’t have so much education, such that they appreciate that scientific innovation and how it can enhance their yield?

You’re passionate about supervising young professional women. Why more women and not men, don’t both need mentoring?

Absolutely, both need mentoring and I have mentored both men and women in my career.

What I seek to do is to support women to come out of their shells, to support women to overcome the barriers that prevent them from achieving their highest potential. That’s why I think that women need special attention – we have so much great potential, but there are so many things that encumber us in society, our gender roles, what society expects of us. These tend to hinder us from being professionally excellent.