Leadership goal: more women at the top

The sector would do well to consider setting a target for the proportion of women heading universities, says Simonetta Manfredi

January 1, 2015

Source: Miles Cole

Here’s a good question for the start of the new year: should higher education set a target of having women fill 40 per cent of vice-chancellor posts by 2020?

It is certainly true that the proportion of female vice-chancellors and principals in the UK remains stubbornly low – just 20 per cent, according to a report published in November by the Equality Challenge Unit.

When women make up more than half the higher education workforce, what message is being sent out by that statistic?

One explanation is that selection and recruitment processes for senior appointments may be affected by the implicit assumption that management is associated with “being male”. This was underscored by a recent study on the career trajectories of men and women in leadership roles published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Equality Challenge Unit, Researching the Careers of Top Management Programme Alumni.

The study, which I conducted with colleagues, surveyed more than 180 senior university leaders who are alumni of the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme. Nearly half the female survey respondents felt that they had experienced gender-related bias in their careers. They spoke of a gendered view of leaders among colleagues and selection panels, and there was a widespread perception among both men and women that executive search firms wield too much influence over the recruitment process and are not helping to increase diversity.

One solution would be for the higher education sector to draw up a code of conduct for headhunters, requiring their staff to have appropriate equality training and clarifying how equality standards should be met at every stage of the recruitment process. In the private sector, a voluntary code was adopted by such firms after Lord Davies of Abersoch’s 2011 report Women on Boards. In September last year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched an enhanced code of conduct that recommends that headhunters publish anonymised hiring data relating to long-lists, shortlists and appointments. This idea, too, could be extended to firms operating in higher education; in response to our report, one firm, Minerva, has published useful data relating to its higher education assignments.

Headhunters should also commit to investing time in engaging with women who could be future candidates for leadership roles. Initiatives such as the Leadership Foundation’s women-only Aurora leadership development programme and ECU Gender Equality Charter Mark offer opportunities for them to do this.

But headhunters are just one key player in the recruitment process for senior managers. The role of governing bodies and the interviewing process itself also deserve scrutiny. Members of governing bodies should receive equality training, and universities should consider adopting positive action in recruitment. Here again, we can learn from the private sector. FTSE 100 companies are working to meet a target of 25 per cent female representation on their boards by next year. The Women on Boards: Davies Review Annual Report 2014 shows that they are on course to achieve this, with several having already exceeded it. Moreover, a draft European directive, already approved by the European Parliament, will require 40 per cent female representation among non-executive directors on company boards by 2020. Some companies, including the Lloyds Banking Group, have already set themselves this target ahead of the enactment of the directive. Although both targets relate to non-executive positions, the comparison is relevant as we are dealing with the same issues of under-representation in senior higher education management.

A key element of the draft European directive is that companies should use positive action in recruitment and, in a tie-break situation, give preference to candidates from the under-represented sex. The UK’s Equality Act 2010 already permits – but does not require – employers to resolve a tie-break in a recruitment or promotion decision (when candidates are equally well qualified) by taking into account a protected characteristic, where people with that characteristic are at a disadvantage or are under-represented.

Some challenge this kind of intervention on the grounds that it undermines meritocracy. I believe it does the opposite. Studies show that both men and women still hold implicit associations about men and leadership, and implicit bias can result in “preferential treatment” for male candidates. Positive action in recruitment could focus the minds of those who make decisions about senior appointments on candidates’ actual competencies and skills, minimising the risk of continuing to “clone” the prevailing demographic of white male leaders.

So should higher education set a goal of having women fill 40 per cent of vice-chancellor posts by 2020? This is an ambitious target, and I think that higher education needs its own Davies-style review and steering group to achieve greater gender diversity. In a sector that is supposed to uphold equality values, closing the gender gap in leadership roles must become a priority.

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