A Slow Road to Gender Equality

University Leadership: A Slow Road to Gender Equality

By Allan Howells

2018 has seen further interest in gender equality issues across society. With International Women’s Day taking place on 8 March 2018, it is an opportune moment to reflect on how well the UK Higher Education (HE) sector has fared addressing gender equality in its leadership.

In 2000, there were only six female Vice-Chancellors and Chief Executives at the helm of UK universities. Today, the proportion of female university leaders has grown from 3% to just under 30%, although alarmingly over the past 3 years the growth appears to have plateaued. An improvement of 25% is significant, although when delivered over an eighteen year timeframe, it cannot be considered a ‘generational’ leap forward.

Digging deeper into sector data is not encouraging reading. In an industry where 55% of staff are men, the pipeline of potential female leaders isn’t obvious. 76% of professors are male and only 33% of senior manager roles are currently occupied by women. Add to this an apparent gender pay gap (23% of female VCs remuneration packages were above £300k whereas the corresponding figure for males was 40%) and some tough questions remain unanswered!

Taking ownership of the equality and diversity agenda at the top of the organisation remains as important today as it ever was. A prominent Vice Chancellor once set themselves a personal objective to include a positive reference to equality in every speech and written communication they issued during a calendar year. Their approach was clear – lead from the front, act as role model, and communicate the organisational benefits from having a diverse leadership team. It made a positive difference to that organisation, however, examples like this are hard to find.

The Higher Education sector established the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in 2006. The ECU has been an effective resource for promoting equality and diversity; the Athena SWAN programme came from it. Still operating today, it remains a positive example of an approach designed to change cultural and individual behaviours. However, it remains disappointing that even in 2017, only 96 universities hold Athena SWAN recognition and of those, only 13 have achieved ‘Silver’ ratings. Likewise, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) has made attempts to support diversity. Its women-only Aurora leadership training programme claims to have engaged almost 3500 participants and yet, with women occupying only 33% of senior management roles, we still await the impact from this investment. However, changes are taking place in the HE sector landscape. In August 2018, AdvanceHE will come into existence. Formed from the coalescence of the LFHE, ECU and Higher Education Academy, the sector must ensure that AdvanceHE doesn’t become dominated just by the needs of academic delivery.

In the global and commercialised world of education, universities must also look beyond their own sector to help it. Leadership Consultancy and Executive Search firms, such as Wickland Westcott, have an important role to support the development of talent for the next generation of leaders. Whilst AdvanceHE may be able to offer leadership programmes utilising experienced practitioners from within the Education sector, the challenges facing the sector leaders during the next 10 years will be significantly different to those in the past and need different insights. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to think and operate differently. Leaders with skills and experiences gained from other sectors will provide opportunities to add real value. Strategic partnerships with Leadership Consultancies that help university leadership teams acquire these skills and address the future challenges will become an important part of the solution.

Whilst preparing this article we both reflected on the best and worse leaders that we have each worked with. For Allan the best was a female vice chancellor (one of the six); whereas the weakest was also a female. For Rachel her strongest leader was a female and her weakest a male. What’s clear is that great leadership isn’t about gender, it is more about vision and creativity. The more diverse your leadership team the more creative and successful your organisation will be.


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