University leaders must get to grips with inequality in senior management

Vice-chancellors and presidents must deliver fully inclusive environments from which female leaders will emerge, says Lucy Meredith

March 8, 2022
A woman leads a group
Source: iStock

A 2020 report on gender equality by the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute made for stark reading. It noted that although almost half of UK academic staff overall are now women, only 29 per cent of the most senior university leaders are female.

Why is there still a gender gap at leadership level? Research highlights that one of the challenges in addressing gender imbalance is that we are preprogrammed to believe what male and female characteristics naturally are – and should be. For example, there is a culturally conditioned expectation that women are kinder and more sensitive, while men are emotionally tougher. This cultural preconditioning shapes how our brains are wired, resulting in stereotypes.

Although the education sector has, thankfully, made strides in addressing stereotypes, research has shown that, in themselves, leadership roles can often be stereotyped. Research from Harvard Business Review highlights that women score highly on the skills objectively required to make effective leaders, such as problem-solving, driving change, boldness and communicating powerfully and prolifically. However, the perceived “ideal” leadership qualities are often associated with attributes that are traditionally classed as “male”, such as assertiveness and single-mindedness.

This can mean that women don’t apply for leadership roles because they feel the job description isn’t relatable. It also makes it harder for them to land the jobs they apply for. Studies have noted that stereotypes can feed into prejudicial behaviours and unconscious bias that can translate unintentionally to the interview process. A female leader might be evaluated less favourably simply because she doesn’t give the kinds of answers that a male applicant would.

Education is often acknowledged as a social leveller, providing equality of opportunity for all graduates. But when it comes to recruitment, it is incumbent on the sector to set a better example and actively seek gender equality in senior management.

I am proud that at University of the West of Scotland almost 60 per cent of our workforce and more than 50 per cent of our senior management team are female. Women also make up 57 per cent of our court (governing body) and 40 per cent of our academic senate. While we still have some way to go, these figures are considerably above the sector average.

University leaders must do more to take advantage of the incredible pool of female talent, nurturing and encouraging more women into leadership positions. A good starting point is to challenge gender stereotypes, particularly around specific roles. Being a member of the Athena Swan charter – a UK and Ireland framework used to promote gender equality within higher education – provides a wide range of support. Unconscious bias training can also help to open up the discussion, making colleagues more conscious of their own preconditioned biases and how their future interactions could be more considered and inclusive.

In addition, robust development programmes can help ensure that female colleagues feel confident, supported and able to apply for promotion. For example, at the University of the West of Scotland, we have a highly regarded Women in Leadership training programme, specifically designed to celebrate and nurture the skills and qualities that women can bring to leadership roles. We also run an Inspiring Women lecture series and invite inspirational female speakers. Local schools are invited to join us at these events, helping motivate the female leaders of tomorrow.

Tackling inequality and confronting any form of discrimination – whether conscious or not – is everyone’s responsibility. But university leaders can play a particularly significant role in delivering fully inclusive environments that not only inspire colleagues but set the standard for what our students can and should expect in their future careers.

The value of diversity, in all its forms, is undisputed. For the sake of our students, the sector and society as a whole, we must make sure that the higher education sector leads by example.

Lucy Meredith is interim principal and vice-chancellor of University of the West of Scotland.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

Surely what students actually want is the best leader irrespective of gender, race, religion sexuality etc. As long as the opportunities to get there are equal, isn't that what is important ? Whilst outcome statistics are great for grabbing headlines they do not tell the whole story.
I have a study on "IMPLEMENTATION OF NEW EDUCATION POLICY IN INDIA AND THE PROSPECTS OF TRANSFORMATIONAL FEMALE LEADERSHIP IN INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION" I struggled to publish my research with Elsevier but was short of asserting the female Leadership. I am grateful to organisers of following conference as they not only see;ected my research but they placed me as session chair of virtual session, they have promoted work on female Leadership and they are real carriers of SDGs: International Conference on Research in Education and Science (ICRES) which will take place on May 18-21, 2023 at Crowne Plaza Cappadocia – Nevsehir, an IHG Hotel in Cappadocia, Nevsehir, Turkey.


Featured jobs