Women hold just one fifth of senior leadership roles in higher education

The recent ‘WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2016’ report reveals that men still overwhelmingly dominate the top leadership roles in 166 higher education institutions across the UK.

Men chair 81 per cent of all governing bodies and hold 78 per cent of vice-chancellor or principal roles.

Since the last report in 2013 we have seen a number of women appointed as governing body chairs or vice-chancellors. Still, the net increase in women at this level is only 11 chairs and 7 vice-chancellors.

New appointments

Women’s share of new appointments lags behind that of men. Vacancies for chairs and vice-chancellors arise but women need to get a much larger share of them if the percentages are to shift radically.

At present, men normally replace incumbent men. Is a possible reluctance to replace an incumbent woman with another woman a contributing factor to the slow pace of change?

68 vacancies for chairs of governing bodies arose in 2013, and only 28 per cent of the new appointees were women. Similarly, 45 new vice-chancellors were appointed between December 2013 and January 2016, and only a third went to women. Seven of the retiring chairs and seven of the retiring vice chancellors were women. But, in each role, only two of the incumbent women were replaced with other women.

The talent pool

It also isn’t simply the pool of talent which holds women back. 60 per cent of new chairs are recruited externally rather than from the internal governing body members, and the public, private and third sectors offer a very large pool of talent.

Does this suggest we need to pay more attention to the search process, the composition of the nominations committee, the interviewing panel or to training for unconscious bias? Alumni associations and executive search firms can be used to identify a broader pool of chair candidates.

The talent pool for vice-chancellors is normally professors, and women are only 23 per cent of all professors. This figure has barely changed over the past few years, which, in itself, suggests that there is a bottleneck limiting women’s progress.

But there are also concerns about selection. Women can put themselves forward for a professorship, but many complain that selection focusses on a narrow set of research achievements and that teaching, administration and outreach work are not valued enough.

To think a little more widely, we should also note that women account for 31 per cent in the top tier of the academic structure and 34 per cent of executive teams. Which raises another issue: should professional staff be considered for vice-chancellor roles? Of the 15 new vice-chancellors, only two came from this background.

And what about considering candidates from outside academia? This broadens the talent pool, and yet it rarely happens. Four of the vice-chancellors appointed since 2013 had distinguished non-academic careers in the diplomatic service, industry and the media. Should academics and their governing bodies be open to the most senior executive role being a non-academic?

More diverse governing bodies

Surely it would also be helpful if governing bodies, who elect chairs and appoint vice-chancellors, were more diverse?

Women hold 36 per cent of all governing body seats, but this varies across institutions from 7 per cent to 59 per cent.

HEFCE’s target to achieve gender-balanced boards of 40 to 60 per cent either men or women by 2020 is achievable, but commitment and action is needed by every institution.

Pulling the purse strings

Then, of course, there’s money. We should recognise that purse strings tied to diversity performance are powerful levers.

Far more action has taken place to create inclusive cultures through the Athena SWAN programme since the Chief Medical Officer linked the attainment of a Silver Award to National Institute for Health Research Funding.

The Research Councils UK statement of expectation of standards of performance on equality and diversity for those receiving funding is a further incentive. If other bodies who provide funding, such as corporates and grant-giving trusts, follow suit, this issue could have a big impact.

Male champions

And, in considering women, we shouldn’t overlook the role of men. Engaging men as champions is critical to women’s advancement.

Men hold most of the decision-making roles in HEIs and many are already champions of gender equality. But more work needs to be done, in discussion with men and women, on the key actions and behaviours men can take to support female colleagues and what impedes them from doing so.