Why universities need more women at the top

European universities are failing in the way they use human resources. Women are underrepresented at the top levels of academia, and there are good reasons to think that this damages universities.

In the 27 countries making up the European Union, 59% of university graduates are women, but only 18% of full professors are women. And only 9% of universities have a women at the top of the organisation. For more statistics, see the European Commission’s SHE figures.

Why should we care? Why is this a problem? Why should we work harder to achieve gender balance at the highest levels of academia?

There are two kinds of answers to these questions. One appeals to fairness and social justice: we should care, we should work harder, because it's the right thing to do. The other kind of answer appeals to the way groups and organisations work, namely, that it's the smart thing to do. Let me illustrate each of these.

Working on gender balance is the right thing to do because women face impediments on their career paths that men do not. Those impediments unfairly slow down or stop women, and they make universities worse because they underutilise half the population.

How do we know women face impediments? Through research, of course!

One famous example looked at the evaluation of men and women applicants for postdoctoral positions in Sweden. The results of the research were published in Nature, where it was demonstrated that a woman had to have 2.5 times as many publications as a man to be judged as equally qualified. I tell more about this study in “Equality Targets as a Leadership Tool”.

Another example of an impediment is found in attitudes about being a parent. In controlled studies, imaginary employees who are described as being parents are evaluated quite differently: mothers are penalised for having children while fathers are rewarded.

Working on gender balance at the top is the smart thing to do because teams function better when they are made up of men and women, and because organisations function better when their leadership is close to balanced.

Research on teamwork has shown that group intelligence is not a function of the intelligence of the individual members. But one thing that does play a role is gender balance in the group. Those groups are better at solving problems, as discussed in “Why Hire (Wo)men?”.

There are many research articles on the benefits of gender-balanced leadership teams, for example, four reports called Women Matter.

The first of these demonstrates that companies with over 30% women at the top perform better. The second one shows that this happens because women use different leadership behaviours than men. The third report identifies measures that can be used to increase gender balance, while the fourth investigates which of these are most effective.

Universities and companies are different and have different cultures. But the research on gender balance in companies requires our careful reflection. It can be a way to increase the quality of the work we do.

Working on increasing the number of women at the top is right and it's smart. Maybe 2012 is the year your organisation will take some big steps. It isn't hard. And it will make you better.

Are you ready? How will you start?

* Curt Rice is the pro rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He blogs on leadership in academia, including gender balance.