Famous five fail to redress sexual balance

July 11, 1997

THEELECTION of significant numbers of women to the new House of Commons, which will have a noticeable impact on its culture and way of working, naturally leads to higher education institutions noticing their own numbers of women leaders. The discrepancy between a higher education intake of 52 per cent women undergraduates (Higher Education Statistical Agency figures for 1995/96) and only five women vice chancellors, representing 4.76 per cent, is clearly not a fact to write home about. Indeed it is positively embarrassing.

A detailed look makes an even less happy picture. Of the 105 full members of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the five women members all head English institutions. There are no women university heads in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. One member, Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, retires in October, and a new member, Alexandra Burslem of the Manchester Metropolitan University, joins in September. By the autumn four of the five will thus head modern universities, and only Janet Finch of Keele will lead a traditional one.

The situation in the 52 member colleges of the Standing Conference of Principals is markedly better. There are six women chief executives, five in England and one in Scotland. There are none in Wales or Northern Ireland. A percentage of 11.5 looks more respectable.

These figures indicate a failure in the British higher education system to adapt to changing times and this is underlined by comparisons with the United States and Australia. The most recent statistics (1995) for women chief executive officers at US colleges and universities show 453 women at 2,903 institutions, thus 16 per cent. In Australia, six women vice chancellors appointed to 37 universities gives the same percentage. Four of these appointments were in the last year, indicating that it is now culturally acceptable for women to head prestigious higher education institutions.

Explanations of the British inability to appoint women are numerous and include noting the intrinsically conservative nature of our system, and the "gentleman's club" characteristics of the universities. One argument points to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in our system and the deeply entrenched, mainly male, networks that come from the past generation's experience of public single-sex schools and all-male colleges. Those on our appointing panels now belong, in the main, to that generation.

Another suggestion lays some blame on professional search organisations. It may well be significant that the companies paid to produce long lists for vice chancellor appointments have strong Oxbridge connections and may too easily set aside women applicants. How many of the women vice chancellors that we have were scrutinised by a professional search organisation?

Whatever the explanation, the facts speak for themselves. Potential women chief executives are invisible. We have not yet learned to see the talent that is available.

What can be done? We can, as ever, learn from other countries and I have discussed the US and Australian initiatives in Women as Leaders and Managers in Higher Education (Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press), published today. Recognition of the problem in the US came as early as 1973, when the Commission on Women in Higher Education was established to promote women's leadership and develop a data bank of women ready for chief executive positions. At that time women held some 5 per cent of the presidential posts. A national network for women leaders was established by the American Council on Education. Their national identification programme, now 20 years old, sees itself as successful in increasing the numbers of women in higher education administration, especially presidencies.

How then do we rectify our own position? Recognising that there is a problem is a start. Excellent work has already been done by CVCP's commission on university career opportunity (CUCO), but its work is not known widely enough. Books on the issue might bring understanding of the problem and offer some positive approaches to finding solutions, as I hope mine does. A conference next Tuesday at CVCP, sponsored jointly by CUCO, the Universities' and Colleges Staff Development Agency and the SRHE, will address the theme from international and national perspectives. It will also launch the new CUCU/UCoSDA professional development programme for aspiring senior women in higher education modelled on the US approach. It begins as a small pilot programme, funded for two years, but its long-term targets are high - 15 per cent of women in top posts by 2002 and 25 per cent by 2007. The talented women are there: can we learn to see them among us?

Heather Eggins is director of the Society for Research into Higher Education.

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