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Women in charge

Professorships hold the key to improving gender parity among senior leaders in higher education

While International Women’s Day 2020 is a time to celebrate the contributions that women make to society at large, it is also a time to reflect on the advances that have been made in incorporating women’s talents, skills and experiences into the most senior leadership roles in higher education. For many years, this has been a collective as well as an individual priority for institutions. But despite some progress, more needs to be done.

The not-for-profit organisation Women Count has been reporting on women’s representation in senior higher education roles since 2013. The best news is the improved diversity of the governing bodies of higher education providers. Between 2013 and 2018, women’s share of all governing body seats rose from 32 to 40 per cent. Even more impressive, more than half of all higher education governing bodies are now gender-balanced, with women making up between 40 and 60 per cent of their members. In 2013, only a fifth of governing bodies were gender-balanced.

Although two-thirds of governing body members are external, about a quarter of all seats are reserved for internally appointed or elected staff members. Women have done very well in filling these internal board seats: in 2018, 43 per cent of all internally appointed governing body members were female.

They have done this either by holding an ex officio role such as vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor or through successfully standing for election in their academic or staff bodies. The percentage of women in seats reserved for student governors is even higher, at 48 per cent. This reflects the work student unions have done on diversity as well as a student population that is majority female.

Overwhelmingly male

But beyond governing body membership, the picture is more challenging. Senior academic and non-academic leaders are overwhelmingly male, as are the chairs of governing bodies who influence their appointments. Women Count research for 2018 showed that men made up 73 per cent of all governing body chairs, 71 per cent of vice-chancellors, 63 per cent of all executive team members and 69 per cent of heads in the top tier of the academic structure.

Women increased their share of vice-chancellor roles from 22 per cent in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2018 and increased their share of all executive team roles from 34 to 37 per cent.

Disappointingly, over the same period, women’s share of academic head roles remained at 31 per cent, although this was the largest proportion of women in any senior leadership category.

Professorial roadblock

Except for chairs of governing bodies and executives in non-academic areas, these senior positions have one thing in common. Being a full professor is almost always a prerequisite for an appointment. Vice-chancellors are professors with a distinguished reputation in their academic field. Deputy vice-chancellors, heads of faculties and schools, pro vice-chancellors and deans are also drawn from the professorial pool.

This professorial prerequisite is a roadblock for female academics wanting to advance into senior leadership roles. Only 26 per cent of all professors are women, and this is only creeping up slowly year on year.

Achieving diversity in the senior leadership of higher education institutions will require them to address this professorial roadblock. Among the courses of action that could be considered are target setting, ensuring fair and transparent appointment processes and reviewing the role and person specifications.

While training and development initiatives for women are important, concentrating on ‘fixing the women’ without ‘fixing the system’ is unlikely to yield the desired outcome. It could result in a larger pipeline of women eager and ready to take on professorial roles only to be frustrated by institutional barriers and cultures.

By contrast, setting targets for gender diversity in professorships and publicly reporting on progress would be a powerful tool for change. Individual institutions, as well as higher education umbrella bodies, could set aspirational targets and timeframes for achieving them, and publicly report results.

League tables

Such a process would prioritise the issue, making it easier to mobilise resources, act, share best practice and review the effectiveness of actions taken. League tables to compare institutional achievements are commonplace in higher education. Why not have one to measure diversity in professorial appointments?

Past examples of target setting for governing bodies provide an insight into its effectiveness as a tool. Before it was dissolved, the Higher Education Funding Council for England set the specific target in its 2015-20 business plan of having between 40 and 60 per cent men or women on governing bodies by 2020. This target was achieved in 2018.

Numerous supportive initiatives have been adopted by Advance HE and the Committee of University Chairs to achieve and sustain board diversity. The Higher Education Statistics Agency has mainstreamed the collection of board diversity data in its annual collection and analysis of data sets across all higher education institutions. Target setting for professorial appointments could well create a similar sense of priority and help to achieve results.

Fair appointments

Ensuring fairness and transparency in the appointments process is critical. Although aimed at governing body appointments, Advance HE’s Diversity Principles Framework provides an abundance of practical content that would be relevant to internal higher education institution appointments, including professorships.

The framework covers diversity, advertising, longlists and shortlists, interviews, candidate support, support for newly appointed employees and succession planning. Nor should anyone be involved in making appointments without diversity and equality training that covers unconscious bias. The natural tendency to promote people like ourselves perpetuates the status quo.

Reviewing job and personal specifications for professorships is also important. Women who put themselves forward for professorial appointments may find that the selection process focuses on too narrow a set of achievements and that their teaching, departmental responsibilities and outreach work are overlooked or insufficiently valued.

Instead, emphasis is placed on peer-reviewed papers and the number of research grants won. This disadvantages women, who have a disproportionately higher percentage of teaching-only contracts. In addition, male principal investigators receive the lion’s share of funding from research councils.

Let’s hope that by International Women’s Day 2021 we have seen a step change in appointing female professors and in opening up opportunities for more women to move into senior leadership roles. The choice to make this happen lies in the hands of higher education’s current—overwhelmingly male—senior leaders.

Norma Jarboe is founding director of Women Count and external adviser to the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University.