Progress halts on appointing more female heads of department

Roadblock could stall progress in appointment of more female vice-chancellors, report warns

November 28, 2018
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The proportion of UK university departments headed by women has remained static over the past two years, triggering a warning that the continuing increase in the number of female vice-chancellors could stall.

WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2018, published on 28 November, says that there are now 50 female vice-chancellors in the UK (29 per cent of the total), up from 36 (22 per cent) in 2016.

Progress has also been made in the diversification of executive teams: 37 per cent of employees at this level across the sector are now female, up from 34 per cent in 2016.

But the proportion of female academic heads – leaders of faculties, schools or departments – has remained rooted at 31 per cent.

There are 37 higher education institutions that have no female heads in their academic structure and a further 54 have only one at this level, according to the report, written by Norma Jarboe with the support of executive search firm Perrett Laver.

Ms Jarboe, founder of WomenCount, an initiative tracking women’s participation levels, described this lack of progress at the academic head level as “worrying”, since 90 per cent of recent vice-chancellor appointments had distinguished research backgrounds.

“A major roadblock to increasing the number of academic women in senior positions is the scarcity of women professors in the talent pool,” the report says. “Being a professor with a distinguished research background is almost always a prerequisite for being a vice-chancellor, as it is for becoming the head of a faculty or school.”

The report recommends that institutions should consider setting public targets for increasing their percentage of female professors, and that these should be regularly reported on.

It also warns that female academics who put themselves forward for promotion often find that the selection process focuses on “too narrow a set of achievements”, for example, grants won or papers published, as opposed to success in teaching or outreach. Thirty-one per cent of female academics are on teaching-only contracts, compared with 23.8 per cent of men.

Ms Jarboe suggested that a push to appoint more female professors was needed, similar to the drive to get more women on to university boards.

The report says that women now represent 40 per cent of all university board members, up from 36 per cent in 2016.

More than half of all institutions now have boards that are considered to be gender-balanced – with at least 40 per cent of members as either men or women. Fifty-five per cent of institutions reach this benchmark.

However, significant variation across the sector remains: the proportion of female governors by individual institution ranges from 9 per cent to 67 per cent.

And the majority of chairs of governing bodies are still men. There are now 46 female chairs – 27 per cent of the total – up from 31 in 2016.

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