Supporting women in higher education leadership

Rapid change in higher education has been propelled by the focus of governments on economic growth and innovation.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Although women now comprise 60% of graduates in the European Union, they continue to be under-represented in leadership roles in higher education and make up only a third of researchers across all sectors.

This under-representation is a result, in part, of fewer women than men as full professors (the professoriate is the main recruitment pool for higher education leaders), and in part the result of an organisational culture that remains problematic for women aspiring to leadership roles.

Most attention has been paid to identifying the obstacles to academic women’s progress at the level of the individual (for example, in terms of gendered constructions of the self); the interactional (‘othering’ and gendered expectations); the organisational (career paths, leadership and organisational culture) and the institutional (focusing on cultural stereotypes, state policies and priorities).

However, with a small number of exceptions, little attention has been paid to what produces positive outcomes. Very little work has been undertaken on identifying the factors contributing to higher education organisational change using academic case studies. Even less research has been undertaken on those factors that contribute to gendered change.

Success stories

The 11-country research consortium, the Women in Higher Education Management Network or WHEM, is therefore undertaking the first cross-cultural analysis of stories of successfully moving forward a gendered agenda in public higher education organisations.

While academic organisations have historically been male-dominated – and continue to be so despite equity frameworks introduced in recent decades – atypical cases exist.

Benchmarks for success in higher education are being explored by looking at what influences change and how transformation is measured in the gendered university culture.

Our study includes examples of best practice in transforming the gender profile of senior positions and the factors associated with such changes, as well as their consequences at the level of organisational culture and management practices. The study thus opens up the question of the extent to which, and under what conditions, the male-dominated and masculinist structure and culture of academic organisations can be changed.

The study explores how higher education organisations have successfully promoted a gender agenda, improving the working lives of women staff and facilitating changes in structures and cultures. Such changes have been shown to increase organisational effectiveness and research innovation.

Indicators of success include hard data, such as increases in the proportion of women in senior positions (for example, in the professoriate or at rector/vice-chancellor level) over a specific period of time, and narrowing the institution’s academic gender pay gap.

It also includes ‘softer’ indicators, such as how change in the gender profile impacts on top leadership roles and the way power is used as well as the impact of informal change agents at all levels in the organisation in setting agendas for those in power.

In other words, we are analysing the impact of a top-down and bottom-up approach to change. Since organisations do not exist in a vacuum, attention is also being paid to the wider legislative and societal contexts within which they are located and the extent to which these aspects have facilitated gendered change.

There is also an emphasis on looking beyond process since there is considerable evidence that even the most comprehensive higher education equity and diversity policies can be subverted and do not necessarily change the organisational culture.

Linking funding to increases in women leaders

It is clear that cross-national structures such as the OECD and EU, driven by market logic, are concerned about the loss to society when highly educated women are being excluded or marginalised.

One of the most effective means of improving women’s representation in higher education leadership appears to be linking commitment to getting more women into leadership roles to funding, as has been demonstrated by Athena SWAN in the UK. From 2017 science funding will be aligned to an institution’s performance in improving gender representation, especially at senior levels. The programme has therefore become a catalyst for institutional change.

Similarly, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council recently introduced a gender equity policy requiring institutions to submit gender equity policies that include a strategy to address the under-representation of women in senior positions in health and medical research.

Another way of getting more women into higher education leadership is providing sponsorship, mentoring and networking opportunities for women who are interested in these roles. Such initiatives have the capacity to change the gender profile of those in senior positions in higher education, produce greater diversity and contribute to social transformation in and beyond universities.

Dr Kate White is adjunct associate professor in the faculty of education and arts at the Federation University Australia and co-founder and co-director of the Women in Higher Education Management Network. The network’s current study, Gendered Success in Higher Education: Global perspectives, will be published by Palgrave UK in 2017. Email: