Lack of female university leaders a problem for Hong Kong

Intervention required to address the issue of under-representation, say Susanne Choi Yuk Ping and Sally Ka-wing Lo

August 25, 2015
Hong Kong skyscrapers

Among the eight government-funded tertiary institutions in Hong Kong, only about 35 per cent of professorial staff are women. Women’s representation drops still further as you look up the ladder to leadership: only 13 per cent of provosts are women and Hong Kong has yet to have its first female vice-chancellor or president in a government-funded tertiary institution.

This is somewhat surprising. Hong Kong is one of the East Asian societies where the status of women has improved considerably in the past five decades, particularly with regard to access to education. Since the introduction of nine-year free and compulsory education in 1978, Hong Kong has witnessed a dramatic increase in girls’ access to education.

For tertiary education, among the programmes funded by the government, women have constituted half of the students since the mid-1990s. Female students in higher education have increased from 33 per cent in 1986-87 to 54 per cent in 2014-15. However, gender parity has yet to be reached among the leaders and management level in higher education. Why?

The under-representation of women in leadership positions in Hong Kong’s higher education sector raises concerns about the issue of the glass ceiling. A dominant view among male university leaders is that female academics are latecomers to the sector, so they just need to be patient and wait. They will eventually catch up with men in leadership attainment, they say.

However, data suggest that over the past 10 years, the proportion of female leaders in higher education has either experienced no increase or very limited increase. One study using sector-wide data shows that over the past 16 years, for most of the higher education institutions in Hong Kong, the proportion of junior female academics has increased between 2 per cent and 10 per cent, but the increase in senior female academics is negligible. 

Such data suggest that we cannot just sit there and wait for women to catch up. They may never catch up. There is a strong case for positive intervention to promote female leadership in higher education in Hong Kong, and efforts must be made to remove the barriers that are hindering women who wish to climb the management ladder in what is a traditionally male-dominated environment.  

Susanne Choi Yuk Ping is a professor in the department of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Sally Ka-wing Lo is a research assistant in the Gender Research Centre at the same institution. They discussed these issues at a recent British Council round table.

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