The Australian government has attacked universities for failing to swell the ranks of women in executive positions.
Federal education minister Amanda Vanstone said that although women made up 46 per cent of full-time academic staff, the proportion holding senior positions was a matter of serious concern.
Of Australia's 38 vice chancellors only four are women, although that number has doubled in the past six months. Such expansion was unlikely to occur lower down the hierarchy, she said. Among the 12,000 academics at senior lecturer level and above, fewer than 2,000 are female so there were simply not enough to create what the minister called "a critical mass" of women eligible to apply for executive posts.
Senator Vanstone said universities would have to break down the "male monoculture" and unlock the talents of their senior women. Despite the rhetoric of equal opportunity, universities were still male-dominated, particularly at the senior executive level, and as a result university management was not as diverse as it could be.
Speaking at the launch in Melbourne of a special women's executive development programme, Senator Vanstone said women were still "desperately under-represented" in positions of authority in politics, industry and the corporate world.
If universities were to maximise their ability to cope with the challenges facing the higher education sector, it was important they harnessed the full qualities of all their staff.
"This will mean they will have to have particular encouragement for groups that are under-represented, of which women are a prime example," she said.
The women's executive programme is a project of the Australian Technology Network, which involves five universities of technology in five states.
The programme was devised to give women holding senior university positions first-hand experience in large private corporations by allowing them to study corporate approaches to complex management decisions for a month or more away from their campuses.
Senator Vanstone said it was particularly appropriate that the programme was developed by the ATN universities, given their strong links with business and industry, their expertise in technology-related research and their commitment to the application of knowledge. Some of Australia's leading corporations, including BHP and NEC Australia, had been quick to seize the opportunity to become part of the programme.
But Senator Vanstone said the government would not force a response. "We've said we want to give universities more freedom to manage themselves so we would be reluctant to try interfering.
"The fact that we are giving seed funding to programmes like this clearly indicates what the government thinks. Universities that want to take up the challenge will get the opportunity, those that do not, won't."