Governance gender gap still yawning

Audit finds lack of women on university boards affects female v-c numbers

December 5, 2013

Source: Getty

Cut from the same cloth: male-dominated boards appoint fewer female leaders

The lack of female representation in universities has again been highlighted by a study showing that only a third of governors are women.

Just 32 per cent of governors in UK higher education and only 12 per cent of council chairs are female, according to an audit of governing bodies by WomenCount, a non-profit organisation benchmarking women’s leadership across the charitable, academic and public spheres.

Only 31 of the 166 institutions assessed – 19 per cent – achieve a “gender-balanced” board of at least 40 per cent female governors, says the report, titled WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education, published on 4 December.

Outside specialist institutions, the least balanced is Middlesex University: in July, when the audit was carried out, only two of 15 governors (13 per cent) were women. However, Middlesex said that it now has three female governors and a female chancellor, Dame Janet Ritterman, who was appointed last summer.

It is followed by the University of the Highlands and Islands and Heriot-Watt University (both 16 per cent).

The University of the Highlands and Islands said that it was reconstituting its governing body, with six women among the 19 members appointed to its university court, which will take effect early next year.

Meanwhile, Heriot-Watt said that three out of four of its recently appointed governors were women and that diversity was “at the forefront of our minds when recruiting to governing body positions”.

The analysis follows continuing concerns over the gender balance within UK universities, where just 17 per cent of vice-chancellors and 21 per cent of professors are female, according to the report.

The male-dominated nature of university boards, which are responsible for picking institutional leaders, may explain why so few women become vice-chancellors, said the report’s author, Norma Jarboe, founder and director of WomenCount.

“When less than 20 per cent of the board are women, it hardly ever appoints them to senior positions,” she said. “In those situations, it’s very difficult for women to influence the board because they are such a minority.”

According to the report, gender-balanced university boards are three times more likely to appoint female vice-chancellors than those with few women.

At the 30 higher education institutions with the most gender-balanced boards, nine are headed by women, compared with three among the 30 universities with the most male-dominated governance.

“Some female vice-chancellors have said that the single most important thing to address the lack of diversity in university executives would be to appoint more women as governors,” Ms Jarboe added.

Without more women in senior posts, a sense of disconnection would remain between those in power and university staff and students, where women are often in the majority, she argued.

Decision-making and risk assessment could also be improved if more women were appointed, according to analyses of the performance of FTSE companies and their executives’ gender make-up, she said.

There is currently no mention of diversity or equality in official guidance from the Committee of University Chairs on appointing lay governors, although advice in the devolved nations is more explicit.

The Scottish Funding Council has proposed a code of conduct to ensure that governing bodies “consider the balance of [their] independent members in terms of equality and diversity”, after a 2011 governance review proposed a 40 per cent quota, the report says.

Welsh universities are also advised to move towards “more balanced boards”, while the Higher Education Funding Council for England has collected data on governing bodies to be published in April.

Ending the election of some lay governors could also improve diversity, as women were often reluctant to put themselves forward, Ms Jarboe suggested.

Most gender-balanced boards, July 2013

InstitutionNo of women%
Source: WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education
Leeds Metropolitan University1053
Regent’s University London953
University of Essex1252
Sheffield Hallam University750
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance1050

Least gender-balanced boards, July 2013

InstitutionNo of women%
Source: WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education
SRUC (Scottish Agricultural College)16
Middlesex University213
Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts214
University of the Highlands and Islands416
Heriot-Watt University416

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