Proportion of women in academic leadership is on the rise

Since 2000, women have represented more than 50% of employees in Australian universities. Every year since then, the proportion of women has increased; except in 2021, when a 0.1 percentage point decrease was observed, down from 58.5% in 2020 to 58.4% in 2021. Understandably, this small decrease is attributed to the first year of the pandemic which hit women harder than men.

To put this in perspective, women represent 47.6% of those employed across all industries in Australia and account for 72.2% of those employed in the education and training industry.

Women accounted for 48.1% of all academic staff in Australian universities in 2021, up by 10.6 percentage points from 37.5% in 2001. Globally, the proportion of women academics in tertiary education has increased by 3.9 points from 39.2% in 2001 to 43.1% in 2019. The latest figures available from UNESCO indicate that the proportion of women academics in North America stands at 49.9%, compared to 41.4% in the European region and 40.0% in East Asia and the Pacific.

Meanwhile, regions like Sub-Saharan Africa are yet to attain higher levels of women’s participation, with women accounting for just 24.3% of academics in 2019.

However, I want to focus on the transformation of the workforce in Australian higher education, specifically, the proportion of women in leadership positions.

Leadership positions

Overall, the proportion of women in leadership positions in Australian universities – that is, associate professor or professor or senior managers – has increased from 21.0% in 2001 to 41.2% in 2021. On average, the annual rate of growth is 1% over the 20-year period.

A better way to differentiate how this transformation has unfolded is to highlight changes by work function:

• Women in academic leadership positions increased from 15.5% in 2001 to 37.0% in 2021.

• Women in professional leadership positions increased from 36.7% in 2001 to 52.8% in 2021.

For those who are in professional roles, gender parity (50%) was achieved in 2018 and has since increased to 52.8% in 2021. The growth of senior professional staff is due to a strong increase in those who occupy a senior executive role.

The true challenge for universities in attaining gender parity at a senior level is in academic roles.

Universities need to focus on retaining and attracting academic talent but also ensuring systems and robust processes are in place which not only encourage but actively nurture women to apply for promotion.

The ability to attract academic talent is subject to fierce competition as every institution, both domestically and globally, is keen to have more women on board.

Differences across institution networks

All Australian universities have made significant progress over the past 20 years in recruiting, retaining and promoting women to senior academic positions. However, there are differences in the proportion of women in academic leadership positions across Australian universities:

• The group of institutions which are part of the Innovative Research Universities had the highest proportion in 2021. These institutions have increased their percentage of women from 18.3% in 2001 to 41.6%.

• The institutions which form part of the Australian Technology Network, which had the highest proportion of women leaders in 2001 (18.8%), have increased the least out of all university networks – a 19% increase to 37.8% in 2021.

• The institutions which form part of the Regional Universities Network have increased their proportion of women leaders by 23.1 points from 13.6% in 2001 to 36.8% in 2021.

• The Group of Eight universities, which had the lowest proportion of all in 2001 (13.2%), remain below the national average (37%). The Group of Eight universities have increased by 21.7% to 35% in 2021.

The significant differences between these institution groups can partly be explained by the composition of their course offerings, their disciplines of specialisation and the extent to which these have transformed their staff capabilities in line with their institutional mission and strategic aspirations.

Gender parity

Should current trends in senior academic roles persist, gender parity is likely to be attained sometime between 2034 and 2036.

Attainment of this goal is likely to depend on several factors: the ability of Australian universities to continue to attract talent from abroad; the ability to employ both domestic and international students who complete doctorates; and the capacity to retain postdoctoral students and academic contract staff upon completion of their limited tenure.

Universities also need to consider the wider societal benefits of converting the positions of women who work on casual contracts into continuing academic positions.

The disciplines in which academics work matter and bear considerably on their career pathways, possibly hindering their ability to be promoted. By way of context, the statistical information publicly available from the Australian Department of Education, Skills and Employment does not, unfortunately, provide a breakdown by discipline.

There are discipline areas which traditionally have had higher labour force participation by women (for example, health and education). By contrast, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have had a lower participation rate by women.

The rate of employment in the STEM fields is where I think the true focus needs to be, as these are the fields which have the lowest employment rate of women at senior level.

Invariably, the ability of universities to retain and attract staff depends on many factors. A key one is their balance sheet, which has been affected by the pandemic.

Two key geopolitical happenings are worth noting as these are likely to hinder our ability to attain gender parity at senior academic level.

Firstly, the significant investment made in higher education and research in recent decades in Asia continues to shake the landscape of higher education, particularly in the STEM disciplines. Asian universities tend to do well in STEM-related subject areas and are progressively outperforming universities from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other high-income economies.

Secondly, 20 years on from the Bologna Declaration, the Europeanisation of higher education in Europe continues unabated. We also see that European universities are focusing their efforts on uplifting academic endeavours in STEM areas.

Aspiring vice-chancellors?

Opportunities for becoming a vice-chancellor of an Australian university remain limited because of the number of institutions (43), tenure, and inter-university mobility, among various other factors.

The number of women vice-chancellors in Australia has fluctuated over the period from 2001 to 2021. On average, there have been nine women vice-chancellors per year. The year 2011 is the year with the lowest number of women vice-chancellors (six) and the highest was 13 in 2018. In 2021 there were 10 female vice-chancellors.

The total number of men and women deputy vice-chancellors (DVCs) in Australian universities has increased from 113 in 2001 to 138 in 2021. It is worth noting that the number of DVCs has varied somewhat over this period. Whether this reflects university restructuring or problems in the annual statistical returns needs to be investigated.

What is significant is the proportion of women DVCs, which has increased considerably from 18% in 2001 to 45% in 2021. Based on the current trajectory, it is likely that there will be more women DVCs than men DVCs by 2026.

It will be interesting to see how many current DVCs become vice-chancellors in an Australian university or offshore institution in the next five years. The composition of the academic workforce is likely to be shaped by the choices (or lack of them) made by academics at senior lecturer level and the kind of career pathways that emerge post-pandemic.

Angel Calderon is principal adviser, planning and research, at RMIT University in Australia. He is a rankings expert and a Latin American specialist. This article was first published on the Campus Morning Mail website.