The news that Wendy Purcell has been put on leave by Plymouth University’s board of governors is distressing. She has both a national and an international profile and is one of a small cadre of female vice-chancellors who are role models for women aspiring to leadership roles in higher education and/or careers in science. A BBC news report refers to a “serious clash of personalities”, a phrase that sets alarm bells ringing for many of us who work in the field of diversity and inclusion.
Whatever the reason for the current internal review, regrettably it is taking place against a backdrop of very serious gender imbalance in the university’s leadership. Only one of the 11 external governors for 2013-14, presumably those leading the review and putting the vice-chancellor on leave, is a woman. Internally, both of the deputy vice-chancellors are men and nine out of 10 of the deans and pro vice-chancellors are men. Two of three named directors are women, but this still leaves female leaders distinctly in the minority.
Is the serious lack of women in leadership roles a contributing factor to the contentious situation in which the university now finds itself? The business case for gender-diverse teams in terms of organisational performance, risk assessment, innovation and emotionally intelligent leadership has been well documented, and there is a public expectation of fairness and inclusiveness.
As part of its review, should the board of governors cast a very critical eye on its own diversity and what appears to be its inability to attract and retain women as independent board members? Surely stakeholders – students, staff, public funders, corporate partners and the community – deserve no less.
Author of WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2013