Below peak

March 31, 2006

Despite numerous efforts aimed at getting women into powerful positions, men still occupy most of the top jobs in higher education. David Jobbins reports

Women still fall short of the commanding heights of higher education in the Commonwealth despite two decades of hammering on the glass ceiling with the encouragement of Unesco and the Commonwealth Secretariat.

There have been advances. In 1994, a Unesco/Commonwealth Secretariat report concluded that "with hardly an exception, the global picture is one of men outnumbering women at about five to one at middle-management level and at about 20 to one at senior management level".

By 2000, an Association of Commonwealth Universities survey had detected a marginal shift. But at middle-management level, men still outnumbered women by three or four to one, and by about ten to one at senior-management level. Female vice-chancellors or presidents, deans and professors are still a minority at 9 per cent, 14.3 per cent and 13.1 per cent respectively.

Jasbir Singh, the study's author and a consultant to the ACU Women's Programme, says: "The proportion of women enrolled in tertiary education institutions and in key decision-making positions in nearly all Commonwealth countries still falls short of the 53 per cent that would represent the female population, and is short even of the 30 per cent endorsed by Commonwealth heads of government and Unesco. Clearly, there is need for efforts to further enhance women's status in higher education."

A number of initiatives have sought to help encourage a better gender balance. "These have brought greater awareness of the problem and instituted steps towards greater gender balance in higher education management," Singh says. But the 2000 figures show that the impact has been limited. Women comprise 22.6 per cent of staff in Commonwealth universities at the level of senior lecturer and above - just 28,310 out of 125,212.

Since 1985, the ACU's Women's Programme has sought to address the gender imbalance. It provides management training, gender sensitisation programmes, seminars and workshops. From 1986, workshops were organised to develop the management skills of senior female academics and administrators. After 1999, the programme focused on training cadres of women to take the work forward in their own institutions and regions. Workshops began to focus on "training the trainers".

A masters programme at the Institute of Education, University of London, was aimed at ambitious, motivated applicants with an honours degree, at least two years' professional experience and the potential to make a significant contribution in higher education management.

Sixteen students have gone through the course, 15 with financial support from the ACU and one on a Chevening scholarship. All but one finished, and several went home to promotions, to take up doctoral research or to new roles in which they could influence gender policy. However, the ACU decided it could not sustain funding of students on the MSc.

Singh says: "The programme has achieved a great deal, but there is much more to do."

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