Transparency needed for more women to become university leaders

Women have now caught up with – and in some subjects surpassed – men in university enrolments. Yet the number of women heads of universities remains small globally. Overcoming this equity hurdle will require institutional changes, including greater transparency in the way leaders are selected, a conference in London heard.

According to Louise Morley, professor of education and director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, UK, the lack of women leaders in universities has become a global problem irrespective of the social, political or cultural context.

“There might be different motivations and drivers in the global North and South, but it is a global phenomenon. It does not matter whether [countries] have equity legislation or military regimes, they still have an under-representation of women at the highest levels of higher education,” Morley told the British Council’s “Going Global” conference held in London from 13-15 March.

“Going Global” followed on the heels of an international conference in Sri Lanka from 6-8 March, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities on women as agents of change through higher education.

Many women university leaders, including vice-chancellors from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey, attended both conferences.


“Going Global” heard that the number of women enrolled in tertiary institutions had grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970, rising sixfold from 10.8 million in 1970 to 77.4 million in 2008 according to UNESCO figures. Worldwide there are slightly more female than male undergraduates.

But UNESCO does not collate global statistics on women leaders in higher education. It does not go beyond the numbers of female staff in universities, Morley said. “What we do know is that in individual countries there is massive under-representation of women in top roles.

“This under-representation reflects not only continued inequalities between men and women, but missed opportunities for women to contribute to solving the most pressing problems facing humankind,” Morley said, referring to the importance of research carried out at universities.

In some areas such as health, welfare and education, women comprise 60% to 75% of graduates. Yet high rates of women’s participation have yet to translate into proportional representation in the labour market or access to leadership and decision-making positions, Morley pointed out.

Even in the European Union only 13% of higher education institutions, and 9% of research institutions, are headed by women, with the highest figures in Scandinavia.

In some parts of Europe there are policies in favour of women in higher education but weak results, Morley said. “Why is it so slow to change? Why is equality legislation not working?”

This was echoed by Professor Charity Angya, vice-chancellor of Benue State University in Nigeria. “There are more women now going to school and getting an education, but the question is: Why is there no change in terms of their involvement in higher education management?

“Before now the issue was ‘where are the women’? Now the women are there, the resource is there, but women are not getting in [top positions]. It goes beyond the problem of the women not being qualified,” Angya said.


Transparency is a major issue in the selection of women leaders, the conference heard. And institutional changes may be needed to transform attitudes before women are selected for the top posts.

In institutions in some developing nations, while there are more women in some programmes than men, women are still not attaining high positions “and that is because there is a lack of transparency”, Angya said. “The rules are against them.”

According to experts, transparency in the appointment process – compared to decisions taken behind closed doors – can benefit women.

“Research has shown that dominant groups tend to recruit in their own image; they clone themselves. They want to minimise risk by going for the familiar. So often women’s capacities and competencies are misrecognised,” Morley said.

Angya described her own selection process. “I was contesting with 10 men, and I was the only female. I was going to appear before a senate that was mostly male. I was going to appear before a council that was mostly male.

“Some of the male sympathisers said: ‘Well, we know you are qualified for this position but it is not time yet for a woman to take the leadership of this institution. But I felt it was time.”

In the end it was the government, which is responsible for appointing vice-chancellors in Nigeria, that confirmed her selection rather than senior male colleagues within the university system.

Jordan’s Minister of Higher Education Professor Rowaida Maaitah told the conference that women aspiring to top positions in universities “have to know the game of the undeclared rules and the politics.

“In my experience it is much easier to get into politics and not as easy to get into higher education politics,” she said.

In Sweden, where 43% of vice-chancellors in 2010 were women, there is a statutory requirement to provide statistics on the number of women students, doctoral researchers, teachers, professors, deans and department heads, according to a report for the British Council.

International Trends in Women’s Leadership in Higher Education, authored by Morley, was published this month.

“It is crucial to get all the private decisions into the public domain. It must be clear that [a selection panel] did not just appoint a vice-chancellor because they liked him,” Morley told University World News.

Institutional change

This may require institutional change. “Will we be happy with 50:50 representation or are there other areas that we will have to pay attention to?” Morley asked.

“Representation is not the only goal for gender equality, it’s just one aspect. We need to also look at how leadership practices can be more attractive and sustainable.”

“It’s not about counting more women in higher education but how it is done,” she said, adding that rather than changing the figures to increase the number of women in universities “we need to move away from that and look at changing the institutions".

Many of those who have reached top jobs said women in senior positions needed help to get there. “Women leaders need to build an international network to exchange experiences and support others aspiring to top positions,” said Gulsan Saglamer, former rector of Istanbul Technical University.

The British Council said it was looking into backing such a network, which would include professional development, coaching and mentoring of women university leaders internationally.