Speaking in London at the British Council's annual Going Global conference (for which Times Higher Education was media partner), Louise Morley, professor of education at the University of Sussex, said her research showed that female academics across the world were often becoming heads of communications, finance or human resources but were unable to ascend to the highest level in institutions.
For instance, women made up 40 per cent of pro vice-chancellors in Australia but only 18 per cent of vice-chancellors.
This pattern was replicated in countries in Europe and nations as diverse as Sri Lanka, Uganda, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to Professor Morley's report, International Trends in Women's Leadership in Higher Education.
"It doesn't matter [whether] the country has had decades of social equality legislation or is under a military dictatorship, the situation is the same," she told delegates on 15 March during a session on the issue. "Women tend to get jobs with huge amounts of admin - roles that deal with the clutter of universities and keep that clutter away from other senior roles [occupied by men]."
Only 13 per cent of higher education institutions in Europe were led by women, while just 9 per cent of research-intensive universities had a female head, the report found. Currently in the UK, only one Russell Group university has a permanent female head: Dame Nancy Rothwell, at the University of Manchester.
Women's low representation in leadership contrasts with a boom in female students in the past 40 years, with numbers rising sevenfold since 1970, from 10.8 million globally to 77.4 million in 2007.
The number of male students has gone up fourfold in the same period - from 17.7 million to 75 million.
"There has been a massive stampede of women students, but it has not followed through into leadership," Professor Morley said.
Charity Angya, vice-chancellor of Benue State University, Nigeria, said women had struggled to gain promotion in her country's male-dominated academy.
"The first time I said I was going for this position, a colleague laughed at me," she told the conference. "I was contesting the post with 10 men and I appeared before a senate and council that was mainly male."
Men were unfairly favoured by appointment panels because they were seen to possess "masculine" attributes of power and authority, Professor Angya added.
Sidi Osho, vice-chancellor of Afe Babalola University, in Nigeria, added: "In Africa, women are [meant] to be seen and not heard. But more women should be in leadership positions because of their natural instinct to care."
Meanwhile, Gülsün Saglamer, former rector of Istanbul Technical University, believed many countries could learn from Turkey, where 28 per cent of professors were women. "I established a nursery on campus, which allowed women to have their children close by in case there were any problems. It is this kind of infrastructure that makes it easier for academics."
The conference session also called for more mentoring for ambitious female academics, greater support to achieve a good work-life balance and more networking opportunities for women in academia.