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

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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