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Why are there so few female vice-chancellors?

Paul Bateman feature illustration (22 August 2013)

Source: Paul Bateman

V-cs talk about the need for a ‘critical mass’ of women in senior posts so that they do not appear or feel odd at their level.

Paula Burkinshaw spoke to the UK’s female university leaders.

In 2010 I returned to full-time education, after an enjoyable career in leadership development, to study for a PhD exploring the under-representation of women among vice-chancellors in UK higher education.

Throughout the years I spent working to support and develop leaders in different sectors, women were never fairly represented at the top. Nonetheless, when my work led me to move into the world of higher education a decade ago, I was still surprised to find a dearth of women in senior roles: this was not what I expected of a sector with a liberal culture of “thought leadership” that prides itself on freedom, respect and a commitment to equality and diversity; surely it should be leading the way? Instead, I soon discovered, universities have highly gendered leadership cultures.

Year after year, published statistics point to the persistence of the gender gap. The Equality Challenge Unit 2012 report Equality in Higher Education found that only 14 per cent of vice-chancellors and 19 per cent of professors were women, whereas women made up almost 50 per cent of early career academics and 60 per cent of students.

Thankfully, nowadays there is a growing conversation across many sectors – including finance, law, the media, the Church and the Civil Service – about the “missing women” in senior leadership. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has calculated that altogether there are 5,400 missing women in top jobs across the UK and concern about this shocking figure seems to be growing, with organisations such as the “30% Club”, a group committed to bringing more women on to UK corporate boards, springing up.

All of this led me to pursue a PhD and I have based my research on one apparently simple but critical question: “Why are there so few women vice-chancellors?” There is strong evidence that more diverse leadership teams produce more successful organisations (see, for example, McKinsey’s 2010 Women Matter report). But also – and more importantly – it is a matter of social justice that women are fairly represented at all levels and in all walks of life. A culture of fairness for women is ultimately fairer for all.

I was surprised to find very little information in the public domain about the views of female academics who have reached the top, namely the 20 or so women who are heads of higher education institutions. Their voices, it seemed, had been virtually silent. So I decided to approach these women and ask them to talk to me about their careers, their experiences of gendered leadership culture and their views on the under-representation of women in leadership. I carried out the interviews between September 2011 and March 2012.

Researching “the powerful” is not the common practice of feminist researchers. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with each of my participants, and felt respected by them in my role as researcher. The interviews raised many fascinating themes that will be the subject of forthcoming research papers.

More often than not, the vice-chancellors I interviewed talked about the need for a “critical mass” of women in senior leadership positions. For the interviewees, this meant a proportion sufficient for women not to appear or feel unusual, odd or strange at their level and across their peer networks. Their comments suggested that the opposite is currently true. As one of my interviewees put it: “You will walk into a room and there will be quite a high probability you are the only woman in the room. There will be quite a high probability that a woman will be interviewed by a predominately male panel. Once you get around 30 per cent it will be easier to make sure that doesn’t happen…they feel confident enough to say no, to not agree, and not feel everybody will remember them because they were the only person not wearing a grey suit in the meeting.”

On the whole, my participants were ambivalent about the idea of setting quotas to achieve this critical mass, but some had strong views about the suggestion. As one said: “I am absolutely dead set and implacably opposed to anything that has quotas or anything else that could be read as tokenistic or anything else that takes the gloss off for people who actually have achieved by their own actions and by their own good qualities.”

While another told me: “I do believe in positive action and I do believe in quotas; I believe they concentrate the mind. I’m not sure how you could enforce a quota at vice-chancellor level…but I think we, as women vice-chancellors, could be doing more to encourage the next level down and the next level down and the next level down.”

A key concern among those who oppose quotas is that they would lead women to be seen as having succeeded only because of the need to satisfy the quota. Yet many of the interviewees also said that, in their experience, women are not as likely as men to put themselves forward for promotion even when they were more than qualified, and others felt that women did not receive equal levels of sponsorship and support and were more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence than men (although my research is not about “essentialising” gender).

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, at the current rate of change it will be at least 70 years until women are fairly represented in the professoriate. When we discussed this finding, nearly all my respondents agreed that this was unacceptable and that something needed to be done more quickly.

Thus “gender mainstreaming” (interrogating structures, policies and practices through a gender lens) and positive action are on their agenda in order to illuminate, challenge and address the myth that higher education has a “gender-neutral” culture.

Several of my respondents are already practising positive action within their institutions even if they are not labelling it as such. For example, some have made sure that all recruitment, selection, promotion and retention committees at their university are diverse, inclusive and gender aware.

One described the importance of making sure “that you have fair processes, that you look at the data”. She continued: “I make my internal academic promotions committee every year look at the data of not only where they are but the salary. ‘Are the women at the bottom of the salary scale? What a surprise! And we know that person is really good, so why is she at the bottom?’ Once you point it out I don’t think people are negative [about doing this]. They don’t realise it’s happening.”

Another leader spoke of her belief that “you can create a culture, an environment – you see that with the Athena [SWAN] award. You can start to create a culture of expectation that expects women to deliver their best. From a leadership point of view, as a vice-chancellor I want to get the best out of my people.”

She added that such positive measures were not necessarily gender-specific: “I don’t want to think I need to do special things. Some of the things that women benefit from, so do men.”

During my research I have come across many examples of positive action, some of which were highlighted at the recent conference at Lancaster about the scarcity of women in higher education leadership, but there is still much work to be done. Worryingly, recent evidence from The Female FTSE Report 2013, prepared by Cranfield University, suggests that women’s representation at the top has recently plateaued. Its authors say there must be action if European Union intervention is to be avoided.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to conduct my research, and while the knowledge created with my participants is inevitably only partial, especially given the huge scale of the issue and its many facets, I hope that my findings will help to stimulate the debate and ultimately inform an agenda for genuine and lasting change.

Paula Burkinshaw is a doctoral candidate in the department of educational research at Lancaster University. She organised The “Missing Women” in Higher Education Leadership conference at Lancaster.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Congratulations to Julia King for recognising the importance of cultural change in institutions. Reports from women applicants suggest that governing bodies need to radically rethink their approach. Why do governing bodies and appointment panels still think that it is acceptable or appropriate to have all-male shortlists or to advise that they want ONE woman on the shortlist ? Imagine if these approaches were openly spoken of in the same way in respect of ethnicity? And why is it still acceptable for final shortlists to be determined solely by the Chair ? These approaches limit talent and opportunity. Time for new thinking.

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  • Johnny Rich

    I echo Pam Tatlow's comments.

    It's interesting to note that while under-represented among vice chancellors, women are dominating some of the other key roles in HE. Soon there will be women at the helm of HEFCE, the Higher Education Academy, UCAS, HESA as well as the chief exec of Universities UK. Of the four major mission groups, only The 1994 Group doesn't have a woman in charge (in either a chair or chief exec role). No doubt I'm forgetting a number of other eminent organisations and, of those tipped to become England's next Universities Minister, Liz Truss is often mentioned.

    It all suggests that the large number of hugely capable women in the sector are indeed finding it hard to rise to the top of our universities but are finding these other organisation less blinkered in their view. We can only hope it'll lead to greater equality and diversity across the board.

    Talking of diversity, has the THE done the maths on the number of VCs from ethnic minorities? I can only think of one (Canterbury Christ Church) and he's a recent appointment. Woeful.

    And by the way, since this article was researched Sheffield Hallam has appointed a woman VC.

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  • This article is absolutely spot on about leadership in universities being gendered and very male.
    There is very little being done in reality to improve things in HE. The government and research funders have to make combine to produce regulation and a business case to get universities to do more than just pay lip service.
    The push to sign onto the Athena Swan charter from several universities comes on the back of the decision by some research funders to only consider those universities that are signatories highlights the need to push universities on Equality and Diversity.
    As a young female academic in a traditionally male area I ( and see my female friends in similar positions) face so much blatant discrimination. What is shocking is that we have no effective means to protest this poor treatment.

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  • John Gill

    Johnny - there's Gerald Pillay at Liverpool Hope too, but two out of 130 tells its own story.
    We've has been doing lots on the issues facing women in higher education careers - a few of them discussed here:

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  • great article and issues raised. However, in my institution where they are still grappling to achieve Athena Swan bronze award, it is actually woeful to see the efforts to promote women. Our national women's day involved having a 'drop in session' in some departments involving other women sit round an have tea and cake and chat about women in power. Needless to say, this was all to look like they were doing something to add to the Athena application, and shortly after failed to achieve bronze award. It is becoming so woeful that the promotion system is actually laughed at where other female staff are considering to go for promotion because they're handing them out and joke about skipping senior lectureship or manager, whatever, and go straight for professor or pro-vice chancellor. Our VC is female, which is a pleasure to boast, but truly bringing the whole women in leadership roles down... the university is experiencing its biggest staff turnover ever.

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