A woman’s place at the top table is not assured

The under-representation of women in senior and leadership positions is a global phenomenon – Hong Kong is certainly no exception.

Out of 110 positions at the level of dean and above, figures from 2014 show that only 8 women (7.3%) are represented in the most senior leadership roles across the sector.

Hong Kong does not currently have a woman university president or vice-chancellor.

And if we move further down the academic hierarchy, the figures do not improve significantly; women comprise only 18.7% of associate and assistant deans and heads of departments.

The Hong Kong university sector is a strong higher education sector, relative to its size, with five of the eight University Grants Committee, or UGC, funded institutions featuring prominently in the global rankings. Unfortunately, however, the sector has yet to embrace inclusive leadership and gender equity as an important milestone of its strength.

Feminisation of the academy?

Worryingly, there are a number of commonly held assumptions and attitudes held by Hong Kong academics and senior leaders that potentially serve to work against an improvement on the above figures.

One is that the increase in women as undergraduate students is evidence that women are somehow taking over the academy. This is known as the feminisation thesis and it is a thesis that two Hong Kong presidents/vice-chancellors have uttered. Of course, this thesis fails to recognise the highly gendered nature of the disciplines.

Related to the feminisation thesis is the commonly held assumption that it is therefore just a matter of time before more women come through the system to reach the most senior positions. This is known as pipeline theory.

But is it just a matter of time? UGC data suggests not. While there has been a small increase in the number of junior women academics in the past 20 years, the increase in the number of senior academics is at best marginal.

In addition, a strong belief in the concept of a meritocracy, premised on the basis of fairness and justice, is alive and well in the Hong Kong academy. Standards for academic employment and advancement are portrayed (and herein lies the danger) as neutral, objective and universal.

The statement ‘We pick the best person for the job’ is not uncommon. However, the recognition of unconscious bias has become important in other institutions elsewhere in promoting the advancement of women academics.

Finally, colleagues have expressed sentiments such as ‘This is just the way it is’ or have described the promotion of ways in which the sector might enable women academics as ‘idealistic’. In effect what these commonly held assumptions and attitudes imply is that no intervention, no action, is required, or can hope to be successful.

The start of the journey

At this point, the Hong Kong university sector, by and large, is only at the very beginning of putting gender on the agenda.

Some institutions have come further than others. My own institution, the University of Hong Kong, or HKU, has committed to a university nursery, in a city in which full-time nursery provision is not an option. This in itself is a supportive move in enabling women academics with children to combine their career and motherhood.

In addition, HKU President Professor Peter Mathieson is one of 10 university presidents worldwide who has committed to the United Nations ‘HeForShe’ campaign, which champions the important part men have to play in promoting gender equity.

Bottom-up, grassroots approaches will always play a significant role in advocating for change, and there is certainly evidence that such a movement, however small it may be, exists here in Hong Kong.

‘Buy-in’ from senior leaders, however, is essential if the sector is to change in the near future. And given that university leadership in the Hong Kong academy is overwhelmingly male, embracing the HeForShe campaign might well provide a window of opportunity to achieve such a commitment.

Sarah Jane Aiston is convenor of the Women’s Studies Research Centre and assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong. Funded by the University of Hong Kong, she has recently completed an extensive mapping exercise of the position and status of Hong Kong academics.


I don't know of a country where women in academia are not under-represented at top levels.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page