How can women get higher up the HE ladder

How can women get higher up the HE ladder

While gender equality has dominated international headlines in recent times, profile does not always equal progress.

Huge strides towards greater equality between men and women are being made all of the time in all areas of society and yet there is still so much more that can be done.

The world of higher education is no different and can perhaps be viewed as a perfect example of how far we have come and how far there is to go.

Women are now 35% more likely to enrol at university than men, an impressive statistic when you consider that it took until the 1860s for the first woman to be allowed to receive higher education.

However, this transformation is not reflected in the number of women in leadership positions at Universities.

Dr Cherisse Hoyte, of the International Centre for Transformational Entrepreneurship, has carried out preliminary research into why this is the case, how a greater representation of women in leadership roles would impact the world of higher education and how this change can come about.

Dr Hoyte interviewed three women in executive leadership positions, five women holding senior lectureship positions and assessed the factors that both hinder and encourage female leadership in the world of higher education.

“The University system is still very much male dominated at the top,” she says, “and this is the case across this country and around the world. A big part of the reasons behind this is that there are still perceived gender norms and stereotypical perceptions of what leadership should look like.

“Men are seen as assertive and strong, women are seen as more communal in their thinking, they are more emotional, sensitive and caring.

“The thing to remember is that all of these attributes can be linked to good leadership depending on your view and they can all apply to both males and females.

“However, if somebody still has those gender norms in mind when choosing the right candidate for a leadership role it can lead to women being evaluated unfairly.”

One topic analysed by Dr Hoyte in ‘Transcending Gendered Norms of Leadership in Higher Education: How Women Do It’ is the effect of female role models on those aspiring to reach leadership positions.

She concluded that while it is a positive that women do have role models they can look up to as examples of how to reach these positions, it is not automatically a good thing.

“I did find that a lack of role models for women to look up to around them was a barrier to advancement,” says Dr Hoyte. “The more women in leadership positions, the more accepted it becomes, which is clearly a good thing.

“However, when there is a female in a leadership position in your circle, it may not be a good thing. Because the number of these positions available is so small, you can be blocked from progressing by another woman, so the idea of them as a role model isn’t as positive then.

“Another factor is that if things don’t work out for them that could reflect badly on you just because you are also a woman.”

In the current social climate, there is much talk about a ‘glass ceiling’ for women across all professions and Dr Hoyte believes that higher education is a perfect example of this.

Various reasons have been given over the years as to why this metaphor for the invisible and artificial barriers blocking women’s path to the top continues to be a real factor in slowing down progress.

These range from recruitment and selection discrimination to personal bias and a lack of quality mentoring.

“I think the glass ceiling is still a very real factor that sometimes prevents women from even applying to get these jobs,” says Dr Hoyte. “If men are in the position of power where they can appoint people to these leadership roles, some women won’t apply for it because they don’t feel a part of that group.

“There is research out there that also suggests we put a glass ceiling on ourselves. If women see a job they tend not to apply for it unless they feel they can meet 80 per cent of that criteria, whereas men have a bit more confidence in themselves to believe they can get that role even if they aren’t exactly the perfect candidate.”

Despite these obstacles, the landscape is slowly changing and between 2013 and 2016, 29 per cent of Vice Chancellor recruits in the UK were female.

Coventry University is leading the way with the appointment of their first black female Chancellor - Margaret Casely-Hayford in 2017 and the creation of a Gender Leadership and Development Group within the university.

Dr Hoyte’s belief that a candidate should be chosen on the merits of the individual is starting to become more commonplace and she believes that the best advice to offer those looking to work their way up the higher education ladder as a female is to simply ‘be yourself’.

“The main advice I would give to a female looking to get into a leadership position in higher education is to be authentic.

“Everyone has their own characteristics and idiosyncrasies, you need to find what makes you, you. You shouldn’t try and emulate men, you shouldn’t try and be more masculine and assertive if that isn’t you.

“You need to be yourself and be aware of your personal growth, be proud of your achievements.”

For more information on Coventry University’s research, visit