News blog: more and more UK universities appointing female leaders

As Plymouth University announces that its next vice-chancellor is a woman, are we witnessing a shift in the sector?

September 30, 2015
Female UK vice-chancellor numbers increasing
Source: iStock

I have just read the news that Plymouth University has appointed Judith Petts as its new vice-chancellor. Last week, an email dropped into my inbox informing me that York St John University’s new vice-chancellor, Karen Stanton, took up her position at the beginning of September.

Two new vice-chancellors, two more women at the helms of UK universities.

Although it shouldn’t be noteworthy in this day and age that two more female heads have been appointed, the gender imbalance at the top of academic institutions in recent years has been so glaringly noticeable that, unfortunately, it really is.

Back in 2013, Dame Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, made some stark and important statements about the lack of female vice-chancellors at the Missing Women in Higher Education Leadership conference. Back then, my colleague Jack Grove reported that only 14 per cent of UK vice-chancellors were women and only one, Dame Nancy Rothwell at the University of Manchester, was in charge of a Russell Group institution.

As recently as May, a THE infographic reported that only 20 of the 133 member institutions of Universities UK would have a female leader come this September – just over 15 per cent. When adding in the recent changes, the situation is better. Now just over 17 per cent of UK university leaders are women.

Other glass ceilings are shattering too: Alice Gast at Imperial College London and Janet Beer at the University of Liverpool have joined Dame Nancy to strengthen female representation at Russell Group universities. On 1 January 2016, when Louise Richardson becomes vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford – the first woman to hold the position – a sixth of the group’s heads will be female.

A while back, I was fortunate enough to do an interview with Elizabeth Garrett, who has just started in her role as president of Cornell University. Besides being the first woman to lead the institution in its 149-year history, Professor Garrett’s appointment tipped the number of women in charge of Ivy League institutions to half.

“Women have risen to leadership positions in more of the great research universities in recent years,” she told me at the time. “But we still lack the number of women in senior faculty positions that will make this a more natural and frequent occurrence.”

I often ask interviewees about female representation in the academy. I don’t know how many higher education movers and shakers read my interviews, but I live in hope that some of the powerful voices who have lent their opinion to this debate – Jackie Ashley, Frances Corner, Daniella Tilbury and Dame Carol Robinson, to name but a few – have been heard.

At the moment, positive steps are often accompanied by caveats. But as more vice-chancellor positions are being filled by women, can we begin to hope that an equal gender balance within the sector might follow?

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