Sheffield revamp prompts concern over sex equality

University fields an all-male line-up in an expanded senior team. Melanie Newman reports

April 10, 2008

The University of Sheffield has instigated a change of academic leadership across the institution, confirming the appointment of eight pro vice-chancellors this week.

But the appointments have raised concerns about gender equality because every confirmed appointee is male and the only female pro vice-chancellor may lose her title as her role is subsumed in the new structure.

Keith Burnett, the vice-chancellor, who joined the university last October, announced the new posts this week as part of a reorganisation into a five-faculty structure. The university is doubling the number of its pro vice-chancellors from four to eight, covering the five new faculties, (arts, engineering, medicine, pure science and social science) as well as three other areas (research and innovation; learning and teaching; and external affairs). The eight will join a new executive board in August.

Of the current four pro vice-chancellors, just one - Paul White, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning - is confirmed in his job. All but two of the seven new pro vice-chancellors were appointed through internal promotion.

A Sheffield spokeswoman said it had not yet been decided whether the university's lone female pro vice-chancellor, Micheline Beaulieu, the pro vice-chancellor for academic planning, would keep her title.

However, her present area of responsibility will be covered by the new pro vice-chancellors.

One of the external appointments, for research and innovation, has yet to be been confirmed, but the job is understood to have been offered to a man.

Anne Gold, senior lecturer in leadership and management at the Institute of Education, said: "Any educational organisation has a responsibility to model gender and other equity. The figures for the pro vice-chancellors in Sheffield are striking and sad, but are no real surprise. It is clear that leadership positions in British higher education institutions are still difficult for women to break into and to sustain," she said.

Julia Swindells, a University of Cambridge researcher with an interest in women and work, said: "If Sheffield can't recruit and appoint any women on this basis, I would want to ask urgent questions about its equal opportunities guidelines."

The Sheffield spokeswoman said: "Candidates were recruited through national advertisements, with the successful candidates chosen on the grounds of their exceptional knowledge, skills and experience."

The eight were chosen by six selection panels, most of which were made up of nine people. "Each panel had at least two women members, but many had more than that," the spokeswoman said.

The university had been selected as one of The Times' "Top 50 places where women want to work".

Regarding Professor Beaulieu's role, the spokeswoman said the new pro vice-chancellors would cover academic planning within each faculty under the new structure.

"The details of how job titles will change over the transition period are still to be discussed," she said. Professor Beaulieu was unavailable for comment.

Sheffield's branch of the University and College Union said that while it was "concerned that no female applicants have been appointed" and about "what message this conveys", it recognised that "the recruitment procedures were robust and transparent" and that it expected "continued progress via the university's equality strategy to encourage and attract high calibre female applicants".

Robin Middlehurst, director (strategy, research and international) at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, said the foundation could not comment on a particular institution's decisions.

But she said: "There is no shortage of very capable senior women in UK higher education ... If women are not being selected for senior leadership positions, it is most likely that they are not willing to stand."

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