Lost leaders – Women in the global academy

Women have never been better represented in higher education than they are today. Globally, female students outnumber male students in two out of every three countries, according to data reported to UNESCO, while the number of women enrolled in tertiary institutions has grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970.

Gender equality legislation, socio-economic and de-traditionalisation factors have all played a part in this welcome trend, yet so far they appear to have had relatively little impact on opportunities for women to reach senior management and academic leadership positions in the sector.

My paper, “Lost Leaders: Women in the global academy”, presented at the 2013 Society for Research into Higher Education conference, as part of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, or CHEER, symposium “Performing Difference in the Global Academy”, examined the reasons behind women’s absence from research and leadership roles in higher education.

Drawing on questionnaire and group discussion data collected at three British Council Global Policy Dialogues (2012-13) in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Dubai, the paper interrogated the narratives that circulate about women and leadership.

Participants came from a range of countries including Australia, China, Egypt, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

Male domination in all countries

While the global academy is characterised by hypermodernism, the archaism of male dominated leadership remains in all countries included in the study.

In most countries, gender escapes organisational logic in relation to leadership and meritocracy is overlooked when it comes to identifying women as potential leaders.

A question was whether women’s under-representation was the result of discrimination or whether women make affective and material calculations regarding the costliness of attachment to leadership aspirations?

Many women in the study discussed the benefits of gaining power and influence in organisations to effect change. However, leadership was frequently constructed as loss – loss of status and self esteem in the case of unsuccessful applications, but loss of independence, autonomy, research time and well-being when applications were successful.

There are questions about who self-identifies or is identified by existing power elites as having leadership legitimacy?

One explanation is that women’s capital is devalued, misrecognised and disqualified in current reward, recruitment and promotions practices. The problem may also reside in wider cultural scripts for leaders that coalesce or collide with normative gender performances.

If leadership is associated with particular forms of masculinity, women leaders represent contextual discontinuity, interruptive in their shock quality. A key question was what is it that people don’t see when they appraise women’s leadership potential, and why don’t they see it?

The lack of women in senior executive positions means that they are under-represented in key decision-making bodies, including committees, boards and recruitment panels.

As a result, the expertise and skills of a significant part of the higher education workforce are under-utilised and potent cultural messages are relayed and reinforced about women and academic authority.

Pathways to seniority are also male-dominated, with women less likely to be journal editors or cited in top-rated journals, less frequently appointed as principal investigators or included on research boards and often finding themselves passed over for large grants or research prizes.

Leadership and unliveable lives

However, there is a two-way gaze.

While women are frequently being seen as deficit men, many women are viewing leadership through the optic of neo-liberalism and austerity cultures, believing that the values, pressures and performances required by the competitive global knowledge economy inevitably result in the leading of unliveable lives.

The data suggest that women are reflexively scanning leadership and dismissing it as a career option, not equating it with vertical career success, but more as a restriction of creativity as well as leading to capacity-inducing conventionality and conformity to norms and values that are alien and alienating.

There was one point on which women agreed across the different national boundaries – the need for change. Collectively, women constructed a Manifesto for Change that relates to accountability, transparency, development and data as follows:
  • • Equality as quality – equality should be made a key performance indicator in quality audits, with data to be returned on the percentage and location of women professors and leaders, the percentage and location of undergraduate and postgraduate students and gender pay equality. Gender equity achievements should be included in international recognition and reputation for universities in league tables.
  • • Research grants – funders should monitor the percentage of applications and awards made to women and actively promote more women as principal investigators. The applications procedures should be reviewed to incorporate a more inclusive and diverse philosophy of achievement. Gender implications and impact should also be included in assessment criteria.
  • • Journals – editorial boards, and the appointment of editors, need more transparent selection processes and policies on gender equality, for example to keep the gender balance in contributions under review.
  • • Data – a global database on women and leadership in higher education should be established.
  • • Development – more investment needs to be made in mentorship and leadership development programmes for women and gender needs to be included in existing leadership development programmes.
  • • Mainstreaming – work cultures should be reviewed to ensure that diversity is mainstreamed into all organisational practices and procedures.
Women are using the Manifesto for Change to engage with policy-makers and leaders in their own countries. Now let’s see how this very practical call to action can begin to affect change!

* Professor Louise Morley is based in the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, CHEER, at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.