ASIA: Why there are not more women university leaders

Over the past half-century, women have made tremendous gains in the workplace all over the world. Hong Kong is a shining example of this. Since 1993, the number of women employed as managers and administrators has increased by 108% and the number of women employed as professionals has increased by 104%.

However, despite more women being prevalent in the workplace than ever before, they are still under-represented in decision-making positions across industry sectors and professions. And despite the fact that academia would seem to be a natural profession where women should thrive, the statistics and studies reveal that the leadership potential of women remains untapped in academia as in so many other areas.

On the surface, the academic world in Hong Kong is filled with women. Employment rates in universities are nearly equal - 55% men to 45% women.

But in fact, this parity applies only in lower ranking positions. At the lowest level, that is supporting academic staff and supporting research staff, the number of men and women is almost level. Among junior academic staff, however, men outnumber women by two-to-one.

The number of women higher up the chain plummets even further. Out of a total of around 1,800 senior academic staff in 2010, men outnumbered women by eight-to-one. Hong Kong currently and historically has not appointed a woman as president of any of its tertiary institutions.

Essentially, two thirds of women working in academia occupy the lower rungs of the academic hierarchy. This is not for lack of highly educated, talented women. It is, rather, symptomatic of the glass ceiling in academia in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Roughly equal numbers of women and men enter PhD programmes - 4,900 and 5,068 in 2010 respectively. Among the top five universities in Hong Kong, female enrolment has superseded male enrolment, but there is a startling lack of women attaining tenured professorships or dean appointments.

Why is it that women are following tenure-track positions at a fraction of the rate that they are receiving PhDs? There are a few explanations for this gender asymmetry.

In a number of surveys, female postdoctoral students cited the difficulties in building a rapport between themselves and their male advisors. This lack of rapport and encouragement translates into lower visibility and fewer reputation-building opportunities for women, from conferences to grant proposals.

A 2008 study conducted on the City University of Hong Kong career choices of male and female science and engineering postdoctoral graduates elucidates this point. Male students overwhelmingly chose to pursue research-oriented positions while female students chose to pursue primarily teaching-oriented postdoctorates.

The impact of this bifurcation is that a large number of women are excluded from the tenure track given the emphasis on academic publications as a critical factor in tenure appointments.

There are also the inevitable lifestyle disincentives. Women with children are much more likely than men with children to opt out of the tenure track. The peak years for academic publications towards tenure (the early to late 30s for most academics) coincide with the childbearing years for women.

Facing this pressure, many women intentionally marginalise themselves from the tenure track. They choose part-time or adjunct work because it reduces the pressure of juggling their careers with family life. While some institutions have adopted more family-friendly policies like part-time tenure or stopping and re-starting the tenure track, biases against this continue to penalise women from being promoted.

Women who do choose to enter the tenure track face enormous challenges.

In studies conducted by the Philippines, the US, the UK and Hong Kong, women feel more isolated in their departments than their male colleagues, reporting that it is much more difficult to create an external or internal network system.

And diversity policies can sometimes bring about unintended consequences: the paucity of women in many departments often results in extra participation on boards and committees for the few existing women to enable departments to meet diversity quotas. This results in female professors losing up to half of their research time as well as the outside consultancies which earn their male colleagues a lot of money.

In looking at ways to resolve this problem, we need to navigate entrenched biases.

Studies shows that stereotypes remain, with female academics expected to navigate a narrow acceptable personality range which is neither too aggressive nor too soft. As a result, letters of recommendation for tenure for men tend to focus on intellect while those for women dwell on temperament, exacerbating the unequal playing field for women.

Women can also do more to help themselves by playing a more active role in marketing themselves in their field. They can be more aggressive in breaking through the pervasive 'old boys' networks in publishing by building links with peers and the community at large. Successful female academics can also help younger women by being more encouraging of budding female scholars in their field.

At the same time, institutional changes are vital. Institutions need to recognise and rectify different doctoral educational experiences between men and women. Changes in the incentive structure are also required to counter the strong disincentive to have children for tenure track female academics. To widen the pool of talented applicants, more needs to be done to support and encourage the re-entry of women who have off-ramped to have children.

At the end of the day, this isn't solely a women's issue. Male academics with non-traditional lifestyles and career trajectories also face institutional bias. Both men and women need to be engaged in the dialogue on how to widen the pool of talent from which tomorrow's academic leaders will be drawn.

Ultimately, what is needed is a radical shift in the parameters that define a successful academic leader. Institutions need to apply alternative indicators in identifying candidates worthy of academic promotion that take into account gender differences without compromising the quality of the institution.

* Su-Mei Thompson and Lisa Moore are with The Women's Foundation, one of Hong Kong's leading NGOs dedicated to the advancement of women through research, community programmes, and education and advocacy.