Getting more women into leadership positions in HE

Women are underrepresented in senior management roles all over the world. Research data continues to testify to this. In the Pacific island countries and other developing countries, this is the status quo.

As a member of a women’s organisation in Fiji, Graduate Women Fiji or GWF (formerly Fiji Association of Women Graduates) and as its president from 2014-16, I have been closely associated with supporting women’s education in tertiary institutions.

GWF is a national member of Graduate Women International (GWI), which is based in Geneva. GWI advocates for women’s rights, equality and empowerment through educating women and training them up to the highest level.

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.

As with most patriarchal societies, we find that women’s access to education is limited and priority is often given to the male members of a family to pursue higher education.

However, such was not the case in my personal life. I came from a background where my father was a champion of women’s rights and pushed the boundaries for his daughters (there were three of us) to ensure that we received tertiary qualifications. His rationale: educate a man and you educate an individual, educate a woman and you educate a nation.

With this background and my passion to excel and acquire higher research degrees, I have sought the same for other women in my community.

Today, even though statistics from universities all over the world show more females enrolling in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, there remains an imbalance in the disciplines. Women are overrepresented in education and the humanities and grossly underrepresented in science, technology, agriculture and engineering.

Another interesting finding is that, even though there are more women graduates, there is still inequality in gender earnings. The The World Economic Forum’s report puts that gap at 63%.

Statistics from Fiji universities reveal that gender disparity in employment is still prevalent despite the many women who graduate every year. While women make up half the population in Fiji, the male-female employment ratio is still 65:35 in many institutions, while the male-female ratio in senior management is almost 80:20.

Lack of women leaders

While women might be overrepresented in jobs in education and the humanities, they are still underrepresented in leadership roles. In universities around the world, about 20% of women progress to vice-chancellor positions. With such statistics still prevalent in the 21st century, coming up to the beginning of the third decade, we need to work towards creating a mental shift where women can achieve the same things as they see others similar to them doing.

Some of the key challenges facing women both globally and locally include lack of critical mass and role models, unconscious bias in in all aspects of their career path and lack of access to key networks.

Discussions in women’s forums locally have also revealed that sometimes women leaders become obstacles to progress through their lack of support for and mentoring of their juniors. This may be due to the male dominant structures in organisations which influence women leaders to provide inadequate support in order to survive and move up the ranks.

The challenge is far greater for married women who are often at the mercy of their husbands and will only rise as high as is convenient for their husbands. These are the challenges that have been revealed time and again in all societies, whether they are developing countries or developed first world countries.

Then there are the gender stereotypes such as women being submissive, passive, timid, indecisive, security-oriented and therefore incapable of acquiring leadership positions. While women desire to move up the ranks, such stereotyping and a consequent fear of failure holds them back when they seek higher leadership positions.

Scholarships and women’s forums

As an association that supports women’s tertiary education, Graduate Women Fiji has provided a number of scholarships to young women to pursue studies in traditionally male vocations such as engineering, science, technology and mathematics.

This was one of my key roles in the organisation as a scholarship convenor. Because I worked in a technical institute – the Fiji Institute of Technology, which has now become one of the colleges of the Fiji National University – I had access to information regarding young women who were seeking enrolment in electrical, mechanical, automotive, marine, aircraft and civil engineering programmes.

Scholarships were hard to come by and these were expensive programmes in the 1990s and early 2000s, until students were able to access a tertiary loan scheme introduced by the Fiji government.

Graduate Women Fiji undertook many fundraising activities, such as hosting paid monthly lunchtime seminars and a very successful annual quiz night. For a small country like Fiji with a total population of less than a million and a workforce which is less than 50% of the population, raising funds of up to US$10,000 a year was a great achievement. We also had assistance and support from the embassies of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain.

In women’s forums taking place in the months of February and March, women continue to speak out against gender inequality and inequity. One of the key points coming out of these discussions is the notion that women lack confidence and that that is the cause of their lack of participation and upward progression to leadership roles.

What about the male-dominant structures of many organisations in which recruitment processes are embedded that seem to favour the ‘old boys’ network’?

Women continue to make recommendations to bring about greater equality, such as demands for professional training and development in the areas of negotiating, leadership, networking and publishing and communication skills.

There is a need to set up more networks to harness resources and form strategic alliances so that women can influence policy in their organisations in order to change structures and practices which inhibit women from progressing upwards.

For women academics, there is a need to form networks and collaborate in research. Higher education institutions need to bring about structural changes and provide more flexible hours of work, childcare centres and other support structures which will help to promote gender equality and equity through collective efforts. After all this is not just about women’s rights. It’s about human rights.

Dr Zakia Ali-Chand is assistant professor, associate dean research in the College of Humanities and Education at Fiji National University.