Who needs mentoring so more women lead universities?

During an interview for a tenure track position, a friend and colleague was asked, “Do you envision yourself in a leadership role at this university at some point in the future?” Afterwards, the friend recanted how the question caused her to pause and then scoff, “Does the institution envision me as a leader?”

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.

The situation for women leaders in Canadian higher education institutions is similar to that in other OECD countries, according to the Council of Canadian Academies: a fifth of university presidents or vice-chancellors are women.

Given that women outnumber men as undergraduate and graduate students, we might expect to see increasing trends towards parity of women and men as university leaders. But we don’t.

Leadership and faculty statistics

Just over 20% of Canadian universities have women leaders in the roles of president or vice-chancellor, according to University Affairs, 27% of vice-presidents (academic) are women and 23% of vice-presidents (research) are women.

About 15% of university chancellors are women – nine out of 60 universities.

In 2013, women held one-third of all faculty positions in Canada, University Affairs reported. Roughly 43% were assistant professors, 36% were associate professors and 22% were full professors.

Understanding the gap

So how should we understand the gap of women leaders in Canadian universities?

The metaphor of the ‘leaky pipeline’ has been used to describe how women’s participation in the university dissipates as they progress through the ranks from student to full professor.

This metaphor suggests women fall out of the achievement trajectory due to social and cultural barriers they encounter from clashes between their gendered home and work lives. Generally, women spend more time than men on childcare and other domestic responsibilities.

The challenges of finding time to publish, travel and write while holding such responsibilities means essential career capital gained through attending conferences and networking is not accrued.

The leaky pipeline metaphor suggests women scholars do not choose to leave in order to pursue other opportunities. Rather, women trickle out of the system as the institutions they work in become incompatible with their personal lives and wellbeing.

Yet the response to fixing this leaky pipeline is steeped in liberal ideological pursuits of increasing the numbers of women leaders.

It is within these parameters that mentorship programmes become the key tool for arming women with skills and dispositions needed to succeed as leaders.

For example, recommendations for mentorship policies and practices are sprinkled throughout an extensive and impressive expert panel report assembled through the Council of Canadian Academies and commissioned by the Canadian Ministry of Industry looking into the trajectory of women as researchers in Canadian institutions.

However, while mentorship programmes for women continually emerge as strategically astute, such approaches present women as deficient in the particular skills and qualities needed to lead higher education institutions.

More than a ‘leaky pipeline’

In contrast, in a recent Globe and Mail article Dr Vianne Timmons, the university president who spearheads an initiative to increase the numbers of women leaders in higher education institutions in Canada, suggests the lack of women leaders is “not a woman’s issue… it’s an issue for male presidents, it’s an issue in the academy”.

Furthermore, what the leaky metaphor fails to highlight is that despite several decades of policies aimed at improving equity, those women who do achieve leadership status are mostly white.

In a study initiated through the Academic Women’s Association at the University of Alberta, examining the diversity gap of professors and leaders, Dr Malinda Smith and Dr Kisha Supernant suggest that the idea of an equitable and inclusive academy is unlikely without significant shifts in policy and practice that focus on diversity.

Importantly, their analysis reminds us that fighting for equity without attention to issues of intersectionality offers no path to justice in our higher education institutions.

What leadership is needed?

Finally, I want to suggest that we should not separate the leadership question for women from the institutions in which we work. Essential here is to ask: what leadership does a 21st century university beckon?

Contemporary institutional pressures are rife to innovate – meaning to commercialise research. Here, output must translate to profit. Consequently, university leaders increasingly focus on developing a corporate dimension to university purposes.

However as Stephen J Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada, points out, innovation should involve a human dimension. Innovation should orienteer our research journeys to answering social problems that disrupt our communities from thriving.

If universities took up this call to refocus on what Toope calls the human dimension of innovation, I wonder who might be called to lead.

The problem, then, with interview questions that ask women if they see themselves as leaders is that the notion of the leader becomes embedded in individual interests alone.

As women seeking leadership positions, we ought to challenge the ways in which we are positioned by our institutions. We must engage in conversations that take us beyond liberal aims of parity.

Let us flip the mentorship concept on its head, asking instead who needs to be mentored in order for change to happen. Let us ask what kinds of universities we want to lead and invest our labour towards creating institutions that inspire great leadership.

Dr Melody Viczko is an assistant professor of critical policy, equity and leadership studies in the faculty of education at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

* See also DiversityLeads – Women in senior leadership positions: A profile of the Greater Toronto Area, a 2012 report from the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, Canada.