Women in HE: where we are how we might do better

Of the 166 vice chancellors in higher education, just 22% are women. That’s better than previous decades: there were just three women VCs from 1948 to 1992. Last week WomenCount revealed that one in three VCs appointed over the past two years were women. But these figures still leave much to be desired, and progress is slow.

Many universities are taking action to tackle the persistent gender bias in promotion, recruitment and selection. Processes are being reviewed; head hunters are getting clearer briefs and unconscious bias and equality training are now often mandatory for staff responsible for recruitment.

The key question is why such high levels of inequality remains despite these initiatives? A lack of suitable female candidates is frequently cited (often, but not always, behind closed doors). There may be an under-representation of women in some disciplines, but it is not the case for the whole sector. It may be perceived that not enough women are ‘vice chancellor material’. So if we are to make real progress here, we must go further than questioning processes for appointing leaders, we also need to ask: what are the skills needed to lead universities today?

When we explored this issue in a project on gender and HE leadership with the Leadership Foundation for HE, the need to have a strong academic background was identified as a barrier to progression by some. Vice chancellors and their deputies have traditionally come from long careers as academics. However, just 22% of professors are women, and not all women professors necessarily aspire to university leadership and management. Yet within the sector, women make up 39.8% of academic and 53.2% of professional and support staff managers, directors and senior officials. The result is that a large pool of talented women are being overlooked.

Valuing teaching and research

Some senior leaders will inevitably be appointed from outside of higher education, but if we accept that the vast majority will come from the academic rank and file, we need to do more to ensure that women can progress.

Throughout academia, we lose women at every point beyond undergraduate study. It becomes particularly apparent when looking at how women are employed in the sector. Women comprise 53.8% of all staff in HE. 44.6% of women are on academic contracts in comparison to 55.4% men. 62.2% of women are on professional and support staff contracts in comparison to 37.8% men.

Further differences occur when you look at the contract types of academics. A similar percentage of women (24.6%) and men (22.6%) academics are on research-only contracts. However, 31.6% of women and 23.4% of men are on teaching only contracts and 43% of women and 53.2% of men are on teaching and research contracts.

So not only are there fewer women academics but of those women, they are focusing less on research than their male counterparts. From our work, we also know that women academics are more likely to undertake outreach and administrative work. In a sector that places significant emphasis on research productivity for promotion, men have a clear advantage.

The much anticipated Teaching Excellence Framework may signal a big change for the representation of women in senior positions. While many universities already consider teaching in their promotions process, teaching will hold new prominence. Will the new framework precipitate a re-valuing of candidates with more teaching than research experience?

Focus on quality, not quantity and support work-life balance

From Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, we know that some institutions are considering a wider range of activities in their assessment of awarding promotions – outreach and administrative work are being included by some. The equality requirements of the Research Excellence Framework are also being replicated in promotion processes meaning that research quality rather than quantity is considered. For women who have had time out due to caring responsibilities, this move could prove significant to their career progression.

Mentoring and leadership programmes are also becoming more commonplace to support and identify future talent and initiatives are being implemented to ensure both women and men can better balance caring commitments alongside their careers. Simple things, like holding meetings between 10:00 and 16:00 can make a huge difference. Some institutions are also setting up budgets to cover childcare costs during conference attendance.

Consider (legal) positive action provisions

As well as initiatives like Athena SWAN, universities have a legal tool to help address gender imbalance. The 2010 Equality Act allows the use of positive action in recruitment and promotion where a protected group is historically disadvantaged or underrepresented. We know that universities are designing leadership programmes, mentoring initiatives and job adverts to attract a diverse range of candidates, but how often do they use the provisions to recruit or promote a candidate from an underrepresented group who is of equal merit? Such an approach could be particularly helpful given the need to look at the skills, not just the expertise of candidates.

Change our mindset

The UK HE sector also needs to change its mindset. Yes, we are producing world-class research, but many within the sector continue to view equality as a burden rather than an opportunity. It’s also good business planning: universities contribute £59 billion to our economy. With more a more diverse leadership and wider workforce, we’ll be more innovative and so likely to contribute even more.

Getting there means not only ensuring more women are reaching university leadership but also that women throughout HE, whether they are an academic or member of professional and support staff, are considered and included in all aspects of the sector’s work.

We are running articles all week on women in HE – find them all under the #Women and Wonkery tag.

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