In celebration of Women’s Month, Stellenbosch University is shining a spotlight on the exceptional women of our institution. As we celebrate the remarkable achievements of female academics with this series of profiles, we also illuminate the transformative power of mentorship. Through their own experiences with mentors, these distinguished staff have not only excelled in their fields but also embraced the vital role of mentoring, guiding and inspiring younger colleagues and students towards success, fostering a more inclusive and empowered academic community.
Amidst the celebratory cheers for the outstanding achievements of the Proteas and Banyana Banyana in their respective World Cups recently, it is only fitting to pay tribute to academics who have paved the way for female athletes to claim the recognition they rightfully deserve. Among the remarkable figures at Stellenbosch University (SU), one stands out as a trailblazer in the realm of women’s sports: Dr Nana Adom-Aboagye.
Currently serving as the Head of the Centre for Sport Leadership at SU, her journey into the world of sports began literally on her father’s shoulders. Little Nana had a front-row seat to the action as her father coached an array of sports. Her family emigrated to South Africa from Ghana in the 1980s and from a very young age, Adom-Aboagye participated in every imaginable sport.
“My dad lectured at a teachers’ college in one of the former homelands and I was blessed that my parents, who both represented Ghana in national sports teams, didn’t treat me in a stereotypical girly way. Sometimes I’d be the only girl playing touch rugby, or soccer or cricket with my younger brother and other boys in the neighbourhood. The other girls found it a bit strange. As I got older, I realised my parents raised me a bit differently.”
Attending the prestigious Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School renowned for its academic and sports achievements further fuelled her passion. She excelled in athletics and hockey and received provincial colours and several medals at a national level. At university Adom-Aboagye was confronted with the dilemma many young female athletes face – realising a career in sport is not a viable option for women and settling for an alternative profession. After completing a BSocSci at the University of Cape Town in Organisational Psychology and Industrial Sociology, Adom-Aboagye embarked on a multifaceted career journey and held positions in government and the private sector. Her connection to the world of sports remained strong though, as she kept in touch with former training partners and friends in the sporting world.
“One day I walked into the office and announced that I’m resigning and going back to school to follow my passion for sport. I decided I wanted to be part of the solution and not just an armchair critic complaining about discrimination against women in sport.”
As a torchbearer for gender equality, Adom-Aboagye identified a disturbing trend during her Master’s research at the University of the Western Cape on funding support for elite athletes in South Africa. While the plight of female athletes in terms of representation had been improving internationally over the past few decades, locally the levels were dropping. Inspired to continue researching women and sport, she decided to pursue a PhD.
After numerous rejections, Adom-Aboagye took matters in her own hands. With a background in corporate recruiting, she sent out an email globally with her proposal. “Prof Cora Burnett at the University of Johannesburg, a world-class expert on the sociology of sport and also passionate about gender equity in sport, said she liked my concept. In 2017 I embarked on my PhD journey with her.” She graduated with a DPhil in Sport Management, focusing on gender equity and sport-related policies.
Adom-Aboagye says she’ll be eternally grateful for the strong women who have supported and mentored her in her academic career. “Prof Cora took me on when others didn’t see my potential. Ilhaam Groenewald, the chief director of Maties Sport, also played a part to encourage and inspire me. These women epitomise paying it forward by guiding upcoming scholars and leaders and imparting what they’ve learned. I started as a postdoctoral fellow at SU in 2021 and now I’m in a position at the Centre for Sport Leadership at Maties Sport where I can make a meaningful difference.”
Adom-Aboagye feels very strongly about bolstering the presence of women in coaching and leadership roles within sports. She highlights the glaring absence of female coaches in male-dominated sports and advocates for a united effort between men and women to achieve gender parity. She finds inspiration in the concept of “nego-feminism” which advocates for constructive negotiations between men and women to address disparities and cultivate an environment of equality.
“We need men to come on board because, for a lot of spaces, we can only enter and have ourselves heard if men open the doors for us. Currently, Prof Cora and I are among a very small group doing research on women in sport in South Africa. Research is crucial because without data to substantiate the existing discrimination against women in sports, people will say female athletes are just complaining and being selfish or greedy. Apart from having to work outside of sport, women often have more responsibilities as mothers or caretakers than men.”
In countries such as Britain, Brazil, Australia, Norway and New Zealand, female players have successfully campaigned to get equal pay in sports such as rugby and soccer, but South Africa is at least a decade behind in this regard, Adom-Aboagye notes.
Research has shown that when women and girls see more females in coaching and leadership positions it encourages them to pursue those roles, Adom-Aboagye explains. “If you look at soccer, we have only have a handful of female coaches at the highest level. Our highest-ranked rugby female coach is only the assistant to our national women’s team. Female coaches understand how a woman’s body works with training loads and how to navigate the complexities of menstrual cycles, for example.”
The media plays a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of women in sports, which is why Adom-Aboagye tries to regularly write articles and opinion pieces to highlight disparities in sport. “We shouldn’t just focus on these issues in Women’s Month or when there is a World Cup. The media needs to be more intentional in how they represent women in sport. Apart from the lack of focus on women’s sports in news media, female athletes are often sexualized or described with emotional terminology.”
At the helm of the Centre for Sport Leadership at SU, Adom-Aboagye has orchestrated remarkable strides. Her leadership has ushered in an expansion of internationally recognised research fellows – 19 in total – all with an interest in women’s sports. “Some of the best and brightest minds from around the world are talking about a wide range of issues, from governance, business, data analytics and technology to disability coaching in sport,” she says proudly.
Constantly campaigning for equality can be exhausting, Adom-Aboagye admits, but knowing she could potentially make a difference inspires her.
As a mentor, she cultivates this attitude in students. “Focus on your dreams. It doesn’t matter how you get to where you want to be. Along the way, somebody will see your worth and somebody will believe in you. That’s what happened to me.”
Her biggest reward would be to see more women in leadership positions in sports by the time she retires, Adom-Aboagye says. “When I’m old and grey, I’d be very happy if I’ve made a difference to even one young girl’s life who goes on to captain the national women’s soccer, rugby or cricket team.”
Thanks to Adom-Aboagye’s tireless work, chances are quite good that future Banyana-Banyana players will one day receive the same recognition and pay as their male counterparts.