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Sex and power: Aston women lead the way

Dame Julia King explains how her institution is tackling gender inequality

Paul Bateman opinion illustration (20 June 2013)

Source: Paul Bateman

The status quo is exclusionary, demoralising and a poor reflection of the academy’s ability to implement what its own research shows is best

Are you working for a woman? Is your research group headed by a female professor? Does your school have a woman as executive dean?

Because the allocation of power and authority in higher education is so lopsided, the answer to all three questions is likely to be “no”. Even in universities, when we think “leader” we still think “male”.

The figures are stark: according to the Equality Challenge Unit, 31.9 per cent of male academics earn more than £50,000 compared with 16.9 per cent of their female counterparts; 80.2 per cent of professors are men; just 27.8 per cent of senior managers in higher education are women.

Of course, women have made remarkable progress but this is largely confined to areas such as marketing, finance, human resources and communications. In the decision-making positions that control resources, set institutional and research strategy and dictate change, the position remains bleak: the Sex and Power 2013 report shows that only 14 per cent of vice-chancellors are women, a lower figure than for members of the Cabinet and directors of FTSE 100 companies, and on a par with high court judges. It is hard to find influential areas of our society where women are more thinly represented (only among national newspaper editors and military commanders, in fact).

Part of the explanation is that most university leaders come through research leadership and women account for only 29 per cent of the world’s researchers. Perhaps that is no surprise either. A recent study of research abstracts by Ohio State University demonstrates a worrying continuation of a long-established finding of unconscious bias: reviewers (of both sexes) judge papers where women are identified as the authors to be of lower quality than the same articles apparently penned by men. The bias occurs across all subjects but is strongest in traditionally male-dominated areas. We have to ask whether it is simply coincidence that the proportion of women in some UK university departments is so low (electrical, electronic and computer engineering is the worst at 14 per cent).

Something needs to be done. Business has recognised the importance of diverse leadership teams in driving innovation and performance. Studies show that companies with diverse boards perform better financially than their counterparts. The status quo is wasteful, exclusionary, demoralising and a poor reflection of the academy’s ability to implement what its own research shows is best.

As an engineer and a woman, it is clear to me that we need action. Action that will lead to more female bosses, professors and vice-chancellors. Action that will strengthen the UK’s academy, society and economy.

At Aston University, an institution renowned for its business and engineering focus, we have tackled the problem. If we can do it, so can others. And with a gender-balanced leadership team (made up of seven women and seven men), unsurprisingly we have not witnessed any decrease in the competencies seen as essential to leadership – including assertiveness, authority and vision!

When I joined Aston as vice-chancellor in 2006, 15 per cent of its professors were women: now the figure is almost 30 per cent – and in engineering we have moved from having a lone female professor to six, 27 per cent of the total. We are almost at the point where female leadership and success are seen as the norm – as they should be.

We have eliminated salary differentials at professorial level: gender is no longer a determinant of the size of your take-home pay.

We have introduced equality analysis and much more transparent panel criteria. Since 2010 we have seen a similar proportion of women from the eligible pool of candidates apply for promotion as men and be equally successful, challenging received wisdom that a smaller proportion apply in the first place: this is a sign of culture change, as well as self-confidence.

Most importantly, we have implemented a number of interventions that have all worked together (it is likely that on their own they would have had limited effect). These include promoting work-life balance and flexibility, and supporting women who aspire to or have won senior roles. Finally, we have embedded social responsibility and gender equality in the curriculum and in the promotions system to ensure that future generations of women will benefit, too.

Across higher education, there is still much to be done. There is no national dataset that tracks the progress of women through the academic grades from early career researcher to professor. There is no national leadership development programme for women who wish to advance to the top.

It is right to ask the question “Where are the women?” in senior positions in higher education but equality is not just a numbers game. Judith Baxter, professor of applied linguistics at Aston, is an authority on the language used by leaders in the boardroom. She has identified that senior women feel the need to adopt a “double-voiced discourse” to get ahead – in other words, to adopt male traits. Female leaders must work to redefine the perceptions and language of leadership so that we do not have to conform to the embedded norms.

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