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Only 17% of UK universities are run by women – why?

Women now form 56.5% of the student body, make up 53.8% of the whole workforce and occupy 45% of academic jobs in higher education in the United Kingdom. But their representation declines dramatically…

A rarity. Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, honoured by the Queen. Chris Jackson/PA

Women now form 56.5% of the student body, make up 53.8% of the whole workforce and occupy 45% of academic jobs in higher education in the United Kingdom. But their representation declines dramatically at senior management levels, where only 27.5% of managers are women. In vice-chancellor and principal roles, this is even lower: only 17% are women, or 29 out of 166 in 2013-14.

In order to shed some light on the possible causes of such a striking gender imbalance in leadership positions in the sector, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education commissioned some research from the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University, in partnership with Learning for Good.

This research focused on the experiences and career trajectories of a sample of alumni from the Top Management Programme. Today, 57 UK vice-chancellors and principals are programme alumni (14 women and 43 men). On the basis of this figure, 14 of the UK’s 29 female vice-chancellors and principals are alumni from the programme – 48% of those women occupying the top job in the sector.

This research involved an online survey which got 183 responses – 45% of them by women. We also did 42 in-depth interviews with a sample of 23 women and 19 men.

Cloning leaders

We found that women are more likely to be unsuccessful compared to men when applying for leadership roles in the sector and that selection and recruitment processes at this level may be gender biased. Some of the women who took part in the interviews felt that leadership in the sector was “too narrowly defined” and that there was a failure to acknowledge that there might be different ways of carrying out the chief executive role.

It’s important to note that when they did the programme, the participants were already in senior positions in the sector. More or less equal numbers of men and women who took part in the research had no particular desire to move further upward in their own or another organisation.

Although the research did not have an explicit focus on the experience of ethnic minority senior post holders, similar points were raised by a small number of participants from ethnic minority backgrounds in respect of cultural bias in constructions of leadership models.

Some of those who took part in the study explained that they became more aware of gender differences as they moved into more senior roles, and, in particular, they felt that they did not fit the image that members of appointment panels might have of university leaders: “some people could not see me in the role”.

The respondents were worried about the lack of both gender and ethnic diversity in both management and governance leadership roles in the sector. Some feared this could result in a “cloning” effect in the selection and recruitment process for senior posts. One pointed out that: “many of the selections are made by white-haired, ageing, middle-class men”.

The role of executive search

Several interviewees of both genders, but predominantly women, raised questions about the role of executive search firms in the selection and recruitment process for senior appointments. There was a perception that these firms may have a disproportionate influence on the hiring process and might be contributing to a reinforcement of the status quo.

It was also noted that fewer women applicants who are included in long lists make it into shortlists. This raised questions as to whether this might be the result of a “tokenistic” approach to gender diversity on long and short lists or whether women might be receiving poor advice in terms of the type of positions they should be putting themselves forward for.

But on the other hand, a few participants of both genders found that executive search firms had positively helped them to apply successfully for more senior roles.

Based on the research, we made some significant recommendations for change at the highest level, some of which are under discussion. These include getting universities to adopt aspirational targets to increase women’s representation in senior roles, equality and diversity training for governing bodies who hire vice-chancellors, and a transparent code of practice for executive search firms. These need to be enacted quickly in order to keep pace with the private sector.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Gordon Hide

    logged in via Facebook

    Well, it would be nice to say that you can't keep a good woman down, but patriarchal society has succeeded in keeping thousands on good woman down for a long time. But now that women are benefiting more from the education system than men we shall see if they can keep millions of good women down.

  2. Vern Wall

    Retired engineer

    The first requirement of any job is knowing how to get the job.

  3. Diane Watt

    Professor of English at University of Surrey

    Executive search firms can be very helpful, and can potentially mitigate against 'cloning'. I agree about the need for appropriate E&D training, and codes of practice. Aspirational targets seem like a good idea too. But also perhaps more mentoring within institutions, and monitoring of opportunities offered to women v. men in terms of gaining experience in different areas of university leadership throughout their careers.

  4. Elizabeth Foster

    General Practitioner at Hope Citadel Healthcare CIC

    Ditto medicine!

  5. Curt Rice

    Head of Norway's Committee on Gender Balance in Research, at University of Tromsø

    I'm having trouble getting ahold of this report. It looks like it's not just behind a paywall but available only to members in some organization. Is that right? If so, I'd be grateful if someone could send me a copy, Thanks!

  6. John Borgars

    Senior Investment Analyst

    If you are looking at the numbers/percentages of women at Vice-Chancellor level you should be comparing them with the percentage of women academics in *that age group* who have continued in academia since graduating not with the numbers of female undergraduates.
    There MAY be a gender imbalance but if you use completely irrelevant statistics, how can anyone tell?

    1. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to John Borgars

      Of course there is a gender imbalance if you only look at numbers. It's because we have two sexes, and they are not the same. Some people just need to get used to that fact. "Balance" does not mean "equal numbers". The fact is most women would prefer to stay home and raise a family, and most men would prefer that too, and everybody who participates in that practice considers the results to be perfectly balanced.

    2. John Borgars

      Senior Investment Analyst

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Well, because you don't get elected a Vice-chancellor while you are earning a crust as a junior lecturer/tutor to finance your PhD (or D Phil). You have to work your way up.
      Age is not, per se, a criterion but some experience showing that you can herd cats *is*.

  7. Curt Rice

    Head of Norway's Committee on Gender Balance in Research, at University of Tromsø

    I agree that the % of women undergraduates today isn't a firm footing for having an opinion about what the 'right' % of women VCs today is. I think the point, though, is that men and women have different career experiences in academia, and the traditional notion of advancement, i.e. progress to professor and, for some, into leadership positions, is available to men and women in different degrees. That is, there are structural barriers that lead to underrepresentation of women at the top. Women leave…

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    1. Vern Wall

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Curt Rice

      "And actually, Vern Wall, "balance" does mean equal numbers. "

      Yes, I expected at least one such response. It depends on what "mean" means. Example: "Some people have to be dragged, screaming and kicking, into reality." I'm sure you will agree with that statement, but it does not mean the same thing to both of us.