In May 1869, nine women were preparing to sit their university examinations. The year before they had become the first female students in Britain to be admitted to university, at the University of London.
Now known as “The London Nine”, these women paved the way for today’s female students, who make up 57 per cent of students in higher education in the UK at all levels of study.
As the current female Chief Executive Officer of London Higher – the representative body for over 40 universities and higher education colleges across the Greater London region, including the University of London – I am proud to follow in the footsteps of “The London Nine” and uphold London’s legacy as a pioneer of progress in women’s education.
Last year, in July 2021, the London Higher group held a significant vote of its own, which saw Professor Amanda Broderick, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of East London, elected as our first female Chair since London Higher’s inception in 1999.
I am also proud that, today, exactly 50 percent of London Higher’s Board members are women, with Professor Broderick joined on our Board by Professor Wendy Thomson CBE of the University of London; Professor Jenny Higham of St George’s University of London; Professor Lynn Dobbs of London Metropolitan University; and Professor Frances Corner OBE of Goldsmiths, University of London.
Further to this, over the past year we have completely refreshed London Higher’s network offering so that three-quarters of our dozen core networks are now chaired by women from across London’s vibrant academic and professional services community. Together, we are committed to creating truly inclusive and welcoming fora and shaping the future of London’s higher education sector for the better.
In a diverse city like London, we are nevertheless aware that true progress for women must include equal opportunities for women from all ethnic backgrounds and faiths. Again, the capital has been a forerunner in the UK higher education sector in this regard, with Baroness (Valerie) Amos becoming the first woman of African descent to lead a UK university via her post at SOAS University of London between 2015 and 2021, and Egyptian-born Baroness (Minouche) Shafik becoming the first-ever female Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science; a post she has successfully held since 2017.
More recently, at the start of the 2021/22 academic year, Josette Bushell-Mingo OBE became the first person of African descent to be appointed as Principal of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, as well as the first woman to be appointed to the role since 1942.
While we acknowledge there is still much progress to be made to make higher education leadership roles reflective of the full diversity of wider society, I am optimistic that London’s higher education community provides much hope for the future by nurturing the female students and staff with the potential to go on and become our sector’s next leaders. After all, true success in this area will be measured not just by the successful women we have in place today, but by the talent pool we are building up for tomorrow.
In this vein, I should like to acknowledge Dr Zainab Khan, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Teaching and Learning, at London Metropolitan University for her invaluable work driving equality, diversity and inclusion in institutional practices and culture, not just within her own University but across London’s collective higher education community through her engagement with various networks and divisions at London Higher.
Professor Taraneh (Tara) Dean, Provost at London South Bank University (LSBU), also deserves a mention for her passion for social mobility and gender equality, and her mentorship of a number of female academics at universities across the UK.
LSBU has itself just passed its one hundredth anniversary of the first woman, Ida Bould, studying Engineering at the institution and achieving the highest average mark in her class. This is indicative of London’s legacy of promoting women in STEM. It is also a legacy that London Higher members are determined to build on through initiatives such as that at Middlesex University London, which is currently offering six fully-funded British Council scholarships for female students from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka to address the continued global under-representation of women in STEM disciplines.
On this International Women’s Day, in 2022, we can therefore be proud of just how far our capital has come since “The London Nine” first made history for women in higher education in 1869. And as a woman representing the collective power of London’s 40-plus higher education institutions today, I am truly excited about the potential of the capital to continue to transform possibilities for women in the sector in the years ahead.
Dr Diana Beech is Chief Executive Officer of London Higher (@LondonHigher)– the representative body for the UK’s largest regional higher education powerhouse in London. Diana was previously Policy Adviser to the last three Universities Ministers, and you can find her on Twitter at @dianajbeech.
Advance HE’s Senior Women’s Leadership Development Programme, which will return in Autumn 2022, creates a safe space for senior women leaders to explore the complexity of navigating through conventional organisational structures and to build foundations for transformation and paradigm shift.
The programme strikes a balance between enhancing technical knowledge of key strategic areas of operation (including institutional finance, structures and governance) and exploring individual leadership styles, leadership legacy, personal impact and developing political skills. Find out more