How to clear the path for the next generation of women in academia

The women who come next shouldn’t have to break down barriers or sneak in the back door to succeed in higher education. Sal Jarvis outlines what she wants her legacy to be

Sal Jarvis's avatar
27 Feb 2024
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A woman walks along a path in a grassy meadow

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University of Westminster

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This morning, a sign outside the local gym caught my eye. “If it is important to you,” it said, “you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” For a moment those words were attractive, and then I felt my blood boil. Let me explain why, and what this feeling has to do with the legacy I want to leave as a woman in higher education leadership.

I grew up in a household that did not much recognise gender roles. No expectations were placed on me to behave in a certain way or to focus on certain things. My mother had experienced a successful career as a gardener before marriage and, when I knew her, was a poet and artist, writing and publishing all her life. I spent my childhood building dens, climbing trees, arguing my points. It was an unpleasant realisation, as I grew up and ventured outside the home, that not everyone felt similarly about gender expectations. My all-girls’ grammar school gave us posture ratings in our annual report, for heaven’s sake.

Yet it was my mother who moved countries to be with my father, giving up her career in the process. It was my mother who stayed at home when my twin brother and I were born. Did that choice mean that my mother had decided that gardening wasn’t important to her any more? Of course not. “Didn’t she understand?” she wrote, in a late poem, “World is my passion.”

That was a long time ago. But it was these experiences – along with awareness of the injustice inherent in the expectations framing the choices of young women today – that underpinned my feelings about that sign on my commute this morning.

Social structures solidify in certain ways. They shape assumptions we internalise, expectations others have of us and choices we perceive. For my mother’s generation, this included the choice between marriage or career. Those structures and practices have scrolled on, persisting and changing through the decades, shaping the options presented to millions of young women in our universities today.

Let’s clear the path

The playing field in academia is far from level. Last year Times Higher Education reported: “As of February 2023, women held the position of vice-chancellor or the equivalent at 48 of the top 200 universities [in the world]”. Less than a quarter. And the article points out that this is 21 per cent better than five years ago. On a journey, for sure, but we still have a long way to go.

Asked about my own path to higher education leadership, I have been prone to say I didn’t have a plan, just followed the interesting opportunities that came along. This is problematic on two fronts. First, because the privilege I have as middle class and white shaped the opportunities that did appear. We are not one-dimensional as women, and intersections can determine opportunities. Second, this means I have reached my position largely without challenge, without breaking barriers. I took the easy path, the back door in. Available to me, but not to everyone.

So when I think about the legacy I could leave, I am fired by desire for it to be different for our students. I don’t want them to have to look for the easy ways in, slipping between the gaps in the fence; nor to have to batter down, or scale up, the barriers. I want the paths to be clear and the choices unconstrained.

Leave a legacy of change

Universities are in a powerful position when it comes to driving change. Like any other organisation, they can examine and change their employment practices – and must. But, as communities of educators and researchers, universities can do more: through what, and how, they teach; through research and knowledge exchange. Through our business, those of us working in universities can impact students, policymakers and the public.

The Universities UK/National Union of Students report Closing the Gap identifies strong leadership as one aspect of what works in tackling the inequalities that lead to ethnicity awarding gaps: leaders being accountable for a whole-university approach; developing their own deep understanding of the issues; enabling open and honest conversations in safe spaces; diversifying board and governance structures and agendas. These are things that will drive change for gender gaps, too.

The University of Westminster has sustainable development as one of its key priorities. We are in the top 200 of the global 2023 THE Impact Rankings for gender equality (SDG 5). We were 11th in a ranking of pay gaps in UK universities in 2022. While we’re proud of our progress, it can only be a start. The legacy I would like to leave is a culture that embeds gender equality in our teaching, research and knowledge exchange and in which assumptions and structures – and therefore choices – are regularly and honestly examined.

Sal Jarvis is deputy vice-chancellor for education at the University of Westminster.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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