Change the way we run universities to unlock women’s talent

Vijaya Nath on what might be preventing women from climbing the HE career ladder

December 28, 2016
gender pay gap
Source: iStock

Striving for gender equality is vitally important, particularly in higher education. As the sector continues to encounter massive changes, we need every bit of talent and the very best, skilled leaders to guide us through.

There is a wealth of evidence from the private sector that increased diversity in senior positions leads to better-run and better-performing organisations.  

These simple business reasons, along with the moral arguments of ensuring equality, are driving forward initiatives to ensure women are supported along their career journey. For example, many UK universities participate in the Aurora project (which aims to track the experiences and leadership aspirations of women working in academia) and view awards from Athena SWAN as vital parts of their strategy. 

Of course, there is a long way to go. Higher education is lagging behind the private sector in representation of women in senior positions. Despite making up 45 per cent of the workforce, only 20 per cent of vice-chancellors and principals are women. Across FTSE 100 companies, 26 per cent of board members are women. 

If we are to address this, it is important to understand the underlying issues that might be causing women to drop away as they rise up the ranks. Only then will we be able to improve organisational culture, and enable more female employees to achieve their potential.

That was why the Leadership Foundation, supported by the four UK higher education funding councils, has commissioned the Aurora longitudinal study Onwards and upwards?. This is the largest survey of women in mid-career ever undertaken in the UK. Carried out over five years by a multidisciplinary research team at Loughborough University, the research is tracking the careers, experiences and aspirations of women working in higher education in the UK and Republic of Ireland. 

From a large sample of 1,576 women, it identified multiple reasons that explain why women struggle to achieve the highest positions within institutions. Early research findings show clearly that these include structural and cultural issues that are seen to be holding women back. 

The research shows clearly that women know they possess the skills and behaviours for successful leadership, but there was a negative view of the workplace culture, which was perceived as putting up barriers to progress and that men have a better chance of getting promotion. There was only a moderate knowledge of how to influence and challenge organisational culture, which suggests that support to deploy skills and exercise their authority and influence in a political and competitive workplace is necessary.

The majority of respondents were not confident that institutional processes for staff review and development worked well. This might explain why only 58 per cent know what they want from their career.  

The Leadership Foundation’s remit is to enable support for institutions to solve the issues facing the sector and talent, not simply point them out – although that can be an important starting point. That is why the research has also investigated the underlying issues, which are more to do with the institution than with women as individuals.  

There are therefore some cultural issues that will need to be tackled at institutions across the UK. We know gender stereotyping, for example, which some women feel has been with them from school age, affects their inner dialogue when making choices about their working lives and certainly contributes to “wobbles” in their confidence and self-belief.

The cultural expectations women have of themselves and that others have of women also still act as a significant barrier to progression. Not to mention that many organisations have either inadequate or absent career planning and talent spotting as part of an overall strategy.

Ultimately, institutions must take collaboration seriously if we are to not only meet the goal of gender equality but also the challenges facing the sector. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some positive suggestions in our research that leadership training can have a huge, positive and lasting impact on women and their careers.

We must now work together as a sector to ensure that no woman is left behind. 

Vijaya Nath is director, leadership development, at the Leadership Foundation.

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