Cycle of domination of top roles by men must be broken

More women attend university now, but there are still too few in senior posts. It's time to tackle the barriers, says Louise Morley

December 6, 2012

Credit: Elly Walton

Women have never been better represented in higher education than they are today. Globally, female students outnumber male students in two out of every three countries that give data to Unesco, while the number of women enrolled at tertiary education institutions has grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970.

Gender equality legislation and socio-economic factors have played a part in this welcome trend, yet so far they appear to have had relatively little impact on opportunities for women to reach senior management and academic leadership positions in the sector.

In Sweden, for example, 43 per cent of the rectorate but only 20 per cent of the professoriate is female. In Turkey, women comprise 28.5 per cent of the professoriate but only 7 per cent of university leaders. In the UK, women form 20 per cent of the professoriate and 14 per cent of vice-chancellors. In some locations, such as Hong Kong, there are no female vice-chancellors. Many countries do not even collect these data.

The reasons behind women's absence from research and leadership roles in higher education are complex but surprisingly similar from country to country, despite varying policies and practices on gender equality. In some cases, women may be dismissing opportunities, while in others they may be disqualified, implicitly, from seniority. But there are enough common factors to warrant an international campaign to tackle the barriers. Women and men in many countries are considering these issues and a powerful "Manifesto for change" has now been developed.

The manifesto was drawn up following a Hong Kong workshop titled, Absent Talent: Women in Research and Academic Leadership in East Asia, organised by the British Council in September. It calls for a range of measures, including making gender equality a key performance indicator in institutional quality audits; encouraging global university rankings compilers to add gender equality measures to their methodology; and creating a global database on women in senior positions in higher education.

At the event, academics from a wide range of cultures - including China, Thailand, UK, Australia and the Philippines - gave accounts in support of the theory that women are held back both by the way they see themselves in relation to leadership and by how they, in turn, are viewed by those holding positions of power.

The skills, competencies and dispositions deemed essential for leadership - including assertiveness, autonomy and authority - seem to continue to be associated with socially constructed definitions of masculinity, regardless of culture.

Historical explanations for women's absence from senior positions rely on traditional ideas about women's role in the family. In many countries, women are still expected to put family duties before professional or personal ambition and outside responsibilities.

These explanations, although relevant, tend to divert attention from many other, often subtle, practices. Global research evidence indicates a tendency for dominant groups to "clone" themselves and appoint in their own image. With men still dominating positions of power in higher education, women's leadership potential frequently goes unrecognised.

Women are also under-represented in key decision-making bodies including committees, boards and recruitment panels. As a result, the expertise and skills of a significant part of the higher education workforce is under-utilised and potent cultural messages are relayed and reinforced about women and academic authority.

Another part of the problem is that pathways to seniority also tend to be male-dominated: women are less likely to be journal editors or cited in top-rated journals; they are less frequently appointed as principal investigators; and they are often passed over for large grants or research prizes.

Currently, only two of the 14 members of the Economic and Social Research Council are women, despite a statement that gender balance is a factor in the council's composition. And there are only eight women among the 67 founding members of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, a new high-profile organisation created to challenge the distortions of the knowledge economy.

Supporters of our manifesto do not necessarily argue that women bring special qualities to leadership, or that including more women implies organisational transformation, but they are unified in the belief that gender equality in employment practices is a fundamental right and the responsibility of all academic leaders.

Globally, it appears that the momentum for change is building. Although a manifesto cannot in itself deliver results, it can underpin and provide a focus for a coordinated and concerted international effort.

The "Manifesto for change" will be presented to the mass gathering of higher education policy and university leaders at the British Council's Going Global conference in Dubai in March next year. Then it is hoped that we will begin to see how this practical call to action can bring change.

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