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Women’s Leadership in Higher Education

08 Mar 2019 | Norma Jarboe Norma Jarboe, Founder and Director of WomenCount, discusses women's participation on boards and the challenges of sustaining the progress that has been made.

Norma Jarboe is the Founder and Director of WomenCount, a not-for-profit initiative focused on indexing women’s participation in higher education, the third sector and public bodies and on addressing issues that result in their under-representation. Here she discusses women's participation on boards and the challenges of sustaining the progress that has been made.

International Women’s Day 2019 saw more women than ever occupying senior leadership roles in the HE sector. We should celebrate this achievement while not forgetting the challenge of sustaining progress made, quickening its pace and ensuring that every HE Provider realises the benefits of diverse leadership.

The latest WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education report shows that 40% of all HE governing body members in the UK are women and 27% of governing bodies are chaired by a woman. Five years ago, women were only 32% of all governing body members and were a scant 12% of all Chairs. Even more remarkable, over half of HE Providers now have gender-balanced boards with between 40% - 60% men or women compared to only 19% that were gender balanced in 2013.

Balanced boards are far more likely to have a female chair than those that are not. 

Achievements to date reflect the concentrated work that individual institutions and their sector bodies have done over the last several years. The Higher Education Code of Governance produced by the Committee of University Chairs now includes Equality and Diversity as one of its seven primary elements. Advance HE and its precursor bodies have worked to inspire the sector and provide necessary tools and training for action. New partnership efforts such as the CUC Board Portal and Advance HE’s Board Diversification Project will sustain and enable further progress. Change has taken place through collaborative work on policy and action.

These efforts support not only greater gender diversity but inclusive leadership across all diversity strands. We shouldn’t forget that men and women are diverse in themselves and that decision making is enhanced by a broad mix of skills and experiences. There is scant information on governing body representation across other protected diversity strands.

However, one only needs to google university governance pages to see that there is tremendous scope for bringing younger and more ethnically diverse men and women into the board room. Is it time that we focused greater attention on diversity beyond gender? The talent pool for independent members on governing bodies is huge and includes people in the public and private sectors, local communities, alumni, industry and the professions.

While HE governing bodies are accountable for strategic direction and public accountability of their institutions, Vice-Chancellors, executive teams and faculty heads deliver the agreed strategy and oversee the operations of the HE Provider on a day-to-day basis. The participation of women in these areas of senior leadership falls short of that found on governing bodies. Women are now 29% of all Vice-Chancellors, 37% of all executive team members and 31% of heads in the top tier of the academic structure.

What holds women back in securing appointments to these senior roles?

Being a professor is usually a prerequisite to becoming a Vice-Chancellor, a Pro Vice-Chancellor or a Dean but women are less than 25% of all professors. This surely must create a roadblock to greater numbers of women taking up senior leadership roles. Yet there is a considerable talent pool of academic women below the professorial level. How do we best advance these women into professorial roles and thus impact the participation of women in the most senior executive and academic roles? How do we ensure that age, ethnic diversity and disabilities as well as gender do not hamper progression to the professorial ranks? Roadblocks to becoming a professor need to be given priority attention if we are to see a more diverse professoriate.

Should individual HEIs and the sector as a whole set aspirational goals and targets for increasing the percentage of women professors and report on them? Should this process also include other diversity strands? Goals and targets do focus attention and often release resources and new initiatives to achieve desired outcomes. The former Higher Education Funding Council for England set a target of at least 40% women on HE governing bodies by 2020 and it was achieved by 2018. 

Besides targets, should job and person specifications as well as selection processes be reviewed for implicit bias? Do they focus on too narrow a set of achievements and not fully consider contributions from teaching, outreach and departmental support? How do we ensure that academic women and men have equal access to research funds so critical to building an academic career?  

Hopefully, International Women’s Day 2020 will show even greater gains in women’s participation on boards, more focus on the intersectionality of diversity strands and increased action on dismantling the professorial roadblock to women moving up the career ladder. This year let us celebrate success to date but reflect on the challenges that still lie ahead.   

WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2018 is the latest in a series of reports.

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