More female leaders would benefit both universities and societies

Progress is being made but much still could and should to be done to boost women’s advancement, says Helen Bartlett

March 7, 2021
A cube with a woman on it being added to three with men on them, symbolising gender equality
Source: iStock

The pandemic has only served to underline that universities hold a critically important role in shaping our societies – economically, socially and culturally. They have been instrumental to vaccine development and public health responses, and their research innovation and ability to upskill and reskill workers will be vital to recovering from the economic damage.

All the more reason, then, that university leadership is as effective as it can possibly be. Yet without greater diversity in vice-chancellors’ offices, the sector will never achieve its full potential in responding to social need.

Universities require different leadership qualities for the 21st century – qualities that challenge the traditional top-down, hierarchical modus operandi. It is now recognised that more collaborative approaches can achieve better organisational outcomes and women have demonstrated the value of bringing such traits to running an organisation.

As International Women’s Day comes around again, it is important to acknowledge that advances have been made in achieving greater equity for women in many aspects of society. However, women are still underrepresented in higher education leadership positions. Despite affirmative action strategies, frameworks and guidelines, entrenched beliefs and structures continue to hold back their career advancement.

When I started my academic career in the UK, there were few female role models at the helm of the nation’s universities. The first female vice-chancellor, Dame Lillian Penson, was appointed by the University of London back in 1948, but that did not exactly open the floodgates – and it took until 1987 for Australia’s first female vice-chancellor, Dianne Yerbury, to be appointed at Macquarie University. Hence, even though I was brought up to believe that I could do anything, leading a university was never on my horizon.

Today, about one in every four vice-chancellors in both the UK and Australia is a woman. The state of Queensland stands out, with six of its eight vice-chancellors (including me) currently women. While this might be a coincidence, I suspect that Queensland, as elsewhere, is seeing the emergence of more women who have skilfully navigated many career challenges and demonstrated convincingly that their unique attributes are needed to steer a different course in the sector.

Yet the odds remain against women. One obvious barrier is that women are significantly under-represented among full professors: the pool from which senior management is drawn. Add to this mobility constraints, disrupted career progression, unconscious bias in recruitment and the preponderance of STEM backgrounds in vice-chancellor appointments and it is clear that we need to do more.

Building leadership capability is a fundamental requirement for making a difference. Introducing coaching and mentoring schemes to support women leaders will help improve performance, increase engagement and foster collaborative working across the organisation. However, making headway will remain tough unless men are also taught such qualities.

To address the unconscious bias that influences academic recruitment, we should require search processes to actively seek out talented women – including from overseas – to produce a more gender-balanced range of candidates. It is achievable but takes time to do well.

Also important are action plans that are owned at all levels of the university to deliver on targets, such as those required by Athena SWAN. Since this UK-born gender equality programme was adopted in Australia a few years ago, it has increased the focus on promoting the careers of women, trans and gender-diverse individuals in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). This targeted approach is relevant, of course, to women across all disciplines, but female leaders in STEMM disciplines are particularly valuable role models given that positions are not traditionally held by women.

Yet achieving a more equitable society for women is a journey that starts in the home, in schools and in the community. Our children learn about their opportunities within their families, while schools are important places for encouraging girls to think about their futures and how to build their potential. Coordinated approaches are needed to help shift perceptions, nurture talent and support girls to improve their education and career choices. Universities have an important role to play, in partnership with schools, community organisations and government.

Indeed, universities need to be exemplars for the rest of the community. To be 21st century leaders, both men and women need to be ambitious, smart, visionary, strategic and outcome-focused, while also fostering collaboration and positive organisational cultures.

It is time to change the discourse and talk about what both women and men can do to promote more equal opportunities for women. The work we do in promoting female university leaders and removing the “glass ceilings” that still exist will have an impact far beyond the walls of our institutions.

Helen Bartlett is vice-chancellor and president of the University of the Sunshine Coast.

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