Speaking at the Society for Research into Higher Education's annual conference, several scholars singled out the growing use of executive recruitment professionals as a barrier to greater gender diversity in the sector's leadership.
Just 17 of the UK's 115 universities (excluding this month's newly designated institutions) are led by women, heard delegates at the conference, held at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, on 12-14 December.
Progress in this area appeared to be "going into reverse", warned Sir David Watson, professor of higher education and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford.
Several UK universities had recently appointed male vice-chancellors on the retirement of their first female leaders, he said.
"There is almost a sense that 'we've done that'," said Professor Watson. This is not a purely British phenomenon, he added.
"The Ivy League has also lost three really good female presidents in recent years," including Ruth Simmons, the first black female leader, who stepped down at Brown University in June (although she has been replaced by Christina Paxson, another female president). "After 25 years of progress, it seems things have gone into reverse. I think executive searches have something to do with it."
He said that headhunters tended to use "very rigid criteria" to select candidates.
"It has quite a baleful influence," Professor Watson added.
Louise Morley, director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, said that headhunters inadvertently discriminated against women when formulating interview shortlists.
"[They have] a way of breaching equality legislation almost casually," she said.
Paula Burkinshaw, a PhD student at Lancaster University, who presented preliminary findings at the conference of her research into the under- representation of women at the vice-chancellor level, agreed that male-dominated recruitment firms and interview panels had contributed to the problem.
"I talked to one headhunter team, where the whole team were men," Ms Burkinshaw said. "That is not to say men cannot be gender-aware but it was almost [implied] that men understood a budget, but a woman had to prove they did."
Ms Burkinshaw, who interviewed 18 female vice-chancellors and pro vice-chancellors for her study, said that many women had complained about being excluded from male-dominated networks, both social and academic.
"They felt men attracted more sponsors and support from those in a leadership background, and were included in networks both within academia and outside it," she said.
Ms Burkinshaw added that female leaders believed that a "critical mass" of women in such roles was needed to change the status quo: "One said: 'You want to be able to walk into a room and not be the only woman...[or be always] interviewed by an all-male panel'."