Why Institutions Need to Address the Gender Imbalance Among Senior Staff in Higher Education

While progress has been made on the issuemore men still hold leadership positions in higher education than women. What is being done to resolve this gender imbalance? 

In 1948, the UK’s first female Vice-Chancellor, Dame Lillian Penson, was appointed at the University of London. 

The decision to employ a woman in a senior position was a turning point for UK higher educationan indication that mindsets on gender roles were beginning to change 

However, while the number of women in senior positions has increased in the last few decades, a gender imbalance still exists at institutions across the globe. 

According to the report, Policy Reviews in Higher Education, in the US and the EUmen make up the overwhelming majority of those in senior management (Rectors/Presidents/Vice Chancellors) and in full professorial positions. 

Recent figures from Advance HE support this conclusion, revealing that “despite comprising the majority of staff working in UK higher education institutions (54%), women remained under-represented among academic staff, staff in [certain] subject areas, and in senior management roles.” 

Furthermore, as reported by BizEd, according to the American Council on Education (ACE), only 30of college and university presidents in the US are women. 

While there is of course variation within and between countries, a global trend exists that sees fewer women in leadership positions in higher education than men.  

study by Dr. Georgina Santos which explored the careers of over 2,000 academics at 24 top universities across the UKdebunked the notion that childcare and maternal duties were the reason for this gender imbalance in positions of leadership.  

The study found that: When comparing individuals with identical or similar qualifications and credentials and family circumstances, the only factor influencing differing academic ranking was the gender, with men holding higher positions compared to female academics. 

According to Forbesnoticeable barriers to the promotion of women in higher education include: 

  • Attitudes of line managers towards female team members 
  • Assumptions of decisions-makers 
  • Other unconscious biases 

In addition to the imbalance itself, when it comes to removing these barriersBizEd highlights how the responsibility almost always falls to women, due to the “expectation that women are better equipped than men to increase diversity.” 

However, this assumption is rooted in gender norms and is a limiting perspective that slows the rate of progression.  

Resolving the gender imbalance in leadership roles in higher education requires real action and cooperation from the sector and the institutions themselves.  

The 50/50 by the 2030 Foundation is an organization working towards equal representation in leadership and key decisionmaking roles throughout Australia. 

Their mission includes increasing the number of women in university leadership positions, with the organization reporting that only 15% of chancellors in the country are female.  

Some of the steps the organization has taken towards achieving their mission includes conducting leading research, designing training to “encourage and accelerate women’s progress across all levels of public leadership, events, and advocacy. 

Steps are also being taken in Ireland to tackle gender inequality in the sectorwith Higher Education Minister Simon Harris announcing an additional 15 female-only professor posts, like the Chair of Cyber Security at Cork Institute of Technology. 

The step is part of the government’s Senior Academic Leadership Initiative and is another example of actionable steps being taken to reduce the gender gap seen in higher education 

Alongside his announcement, Harris said: “I wish initiatives such as these were not necessary, but its clear we need them to increase female leadership in the third-level sector.” 

Progress is being made, with International Women’s Day 2019 seeing “more women than ever occupying senior leadership roles in the higher education sector.” 

With action and determination from the higher education industry, there is no reason why the gender gap that exists among leadership roles can’t be closed for good.  

Long-term strategic thinking, whether it be related to diversity initiatives or other areas, is a critical component of any successful higher education institution. To explore how your institution can better implement long-term strategic thinking and planning, please contact our QS Consulting team 

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