Women grab one in four v-c jobs

September 19, 2003

The gender mix at the top of Australia's universities is shifting dramatically - a record 11 of the 39 members of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee are women.

Six years ago, only two women were eligible to join the male-dominated group, and they were outnumbered by more than 18:1. By next month, the ratio will be slashed to just under 4:1 in a rapid development not seen in 150 years of Australian higher education.

Men had occupied the top spot on campus from the founding of the University of Sydney in 1852 until 1987, when the first female vice-chancellor was appointed.

A decade later, in the space of a few months, four women took over as vice-chancellors. Since then, their numbers have continued to rise. At one point, all three universities in Adelaide were headed by women.

Anne Edwards took charge of Flinders University in 2001 after five years as deputy. She noted that the gender balance in recent vice-chancellor appointments has been remarkable historically.

"That says something about the talent pool now being drawn on," she said.

"A significant proportion of women are now interested in applying for these jobs, and I suspect that changes within the culture of universities are responsible for that."

The moves at the top follow an extraordinary transformation among the student body in which, since 1987, female students have outnumbered men.

Today, 75,000 more women than men are enrolled.

Women also perform better overall and have higher completion rates. Of the 145,000 students awarded degrees last year, nearly 60 per cent were females. Among university staff, men are also outnumbered.

The only place on campus where women have not made rapid advances is at some of the senior academic levels: among professors, there are five men to every woman and two male senior lecturers to every female.

Sally Walker, vice-chancellor at Deakin University in Melbourne, said that while she was deputy to the vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne, she championed a Women in Leadership programme designed to familiarise women with the university's management and governance structures.

"Lack of familiarity with senior roles is a major problem - I have often referred to a 'concrete' rather than a 'glass' ceiling because if women can see through it, they can get through it," Professor Walker said.

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