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Women and leadership in academia

Some statistics

Susanne Baer gave a keynote speech at the 5th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education in Berlin, at which she claimed that "numbers matter", referring to numbers of undergraduates – particularly in science programmes. What mattered even more, she went on, was quality, in the sense of women trickling through the system to become decision makers in higher education (Blättel-Mink, 2007).

All over the world, women form a high proportion of students – it is predicted that by 2010 there will be 7.76 million male and 10.72 million female undergraduates in the USA – but are under-represented in academic leadership positions, as full professor or higher.

In the USA, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conducted a survey in 2005/06, which showed that – in a country where it is prohibited to discriminate according to gender in education – women were nevertheless having difficulty achieving top faculty ranks. Any sector needs to make full use of its talent, but in this sector good practices are crucial because of threatened shortages (West and Curtis, 2006).

Their survey showed how, despite the growth in the number of women completing PhDs (in 2004, over half the terminal degrees awarded were received by women), only 31 per cent held full-time tenured positions, while in doctorate granting institutions the proportion fell to 25 per cent. Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of full professors were women; who were more likely to hold positions at associated degree colleges (47 per cent), rather than masters or baccalaureate (28 or 29 per cent), while only 19 per cent were at doctorate granting institutions.

According to another study (Walker, 2007), in 2006 23 per cent of college presidents were women – but they were most likely to be presidents of a community college (29 per cent) and least likely to be presidents of a doctorate granting institution (13.8 per cent).

In the UK, the proportion of female professors is even smaller at less than 20 per cent – just 2,885 out of 16,485, while women occupied 12,375 of the 33,650 senior lecturer jobs, and are expected to outnumber men in the profession by 2010 (Oxford, 2008).

In Australia, 24.5 per cent of associate professors are women, and 17 per cent full professors according to 2005 statistics. In South Africa, while 41 per cent of academic positions were held by women, only 26 per cent held managerial and executive positions, and only 17 per cent were professors.

In Commonwealth countries, Morley (2005, p. 211) reports on research conducted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities which showed that women are seriously under-represented in senior positions.

Image: Figure 1. Graph showing the percentage of women professors and executive heads in selected Commonwealth countries.

Figure 1. Percentage of women professors and executive heads in selected Commonwealth countries (Source: Singh, J. (2002), Still a Single Sex Profession? Female Staff Numbers in Commonwealth Universities, Association of Commonwealth Universities, London, quoted in Morley, 2005)

In the European Union, the average proportion of female professors is 14 per cent. Four countries from Central and Eastern Europe, four from Southern Europe, Belgium and the UK are above the mean. Strangely, Norway and Denmark, countries with a long history of egalitarian legislation, are below the mean (Özkanlı, 2006).

Image: Figure 2. Graph depicting distribution of professors by gender at universities in selected European countries, 2000-2001.

Figure 2. Distribution of professors by gender at universities in selected European countries, 2000-2001 (Source: European Commission Directorate-General for Research (2003), Women and Science Statistics and Indicators, EC, Belgium, quoted in Morley, 2006)

None of these countries has as high a proportion as Turkey, where women comprise 39 per cent of the academic workforce, of which 27 per cent are full professors and 31 per cent associate professors. Compared with some countries in Europe, Turkey has had little specific anti-discrimination legislation, although Atatürk gave women equal rights in the constitution (Özlanlı and White, 2008). Interestingly, the proportion of women in senior positions appears to increase the more the organization is oriented to research or graduate studies, although very few women are employed as deans or rectors (Özkanlı, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, academic women's salaries also fall behind those of men. The AAUP survey showed that even when women were on the same rank as their male colleagues, they were likely to be on a lower point in the scale. Thus the pay of women professors was 88 per cent of that of men's, and women's salaries in general stood at 81 per cent (West and Curtis, 2006). In the UK, a survey in 2002-03 showed that women's pay could lag behind that of men by as much as £5,000 (Priola, 2004).

Opcara et al. (2005) conjecture on reasons for the pay gap, proposing such factors as an unfair promotion system, concentration in the lower academic ranks, and additional caring burdens which make women feel too tired to perform optimally.

Taking examples from around the world, we shall now go on to consider the factors that prevent women from breaking the glass ceiling in reasonable numbers.

Social and economic factors outside the university environment

Some things are the same all over the world: for example, women may experience a conflict between their domestic and professional roles. Universities too tend to display similarities in terms of workplace culture and structural practices that affect promotion. However, other factors are extrinsic and relate to particular historical or social circumstances of a particular country.

One of the most extensive pieces of research on women in leadership roles in higher education is that done by Özkanlı and White (2008), which is a comparative study of female professors in Turkey and Australia. Whereas Australia had been the beneficiary of considerable equal employment opportunity and affirmative action, as well as an "Action Plan for Women Employed in Australian Universities", Turkey has no specific equal opportunity laws although the Turkish Constitution guarantees equality. And yet, as described in the previous section, there are significantly more female professors in Turkey than Australia.

There are several reasons for this. A basis was laid in the 1920s by the secularist principles of Kemel Atatürk, who believed that men and women should contribute equally to Turkish economic, cultural, and social life (Özkanlı, 2006). Professional careers were seen as more fitting for a "respectful Turkish woman" than business. Higher education tends to be poorly paid, hence shunned by men in favour of more highly paid commercial careers, thus shortening the queue for jobs. Although there is little legislation for diversity, appointments are highly transparent and regulated, which has the same effect. Finally, there has been considerable growth in the number of universities, which has increased from 29 to 77 between 1990 and 2006, and the number of female professors increased by 75 per cent in that time.

In Australia, by contrast, the university sector has been largely stagnant, but has been forced to take on practices from the business world. This has resulted in a macho, managerialist culture which is also highly competitive, and not one where women have flourished. Moreover, morale is low and the atmosphere not one which encourages creativity and learning.

It is hardly surprising that the authors of this study conclude that equal opportunities legislation has little effect on women's employment. South Africa on the other hand is a society which is emerging from the notorious apartheid era to one which tries to be more equitable. Recent attempts at equal opportunities legislation, however, have to contend with an infrastructure that is based on the values of the old regime.

Mabokela (2001), Mabokela and Mawila (2004) and Moultrie and de la Rey (2003) have all undertaken research on women in academic positions in South Africa, and they report on how black women are still profoundly disadvantaged, and under-represented in senior positions. Black universities are teaching institutions and lack a research culture, having been set up to train administrators for the new black homelands, and therefore keep the system in place, rather than as seats of knowledge. Although the PhD is the international passport to an academic career, many South African academics have not had the opportunity to acquire it (some may have "lost" their earlier research years to political activism). Mabokela and Mawila (2004) cite research that 25 per cent of academics in black universities have a PhD as opposed to 50 per cent of those in their white counterparts.

Growth in the university sector, as in the Turkish example above, creates opportunities as does demographic change. In America, community colleges mushroomed in the 1960s and 1970s and attracted idealist leaders, many of whom are now facing retirement; 50 per cent of college presidents are currently over 60. According to Jacqueline King, director of the American Council on Education's (ACE) Center for Policy Analysis, this provides opportunity for more diverse appointments (Walker, 2007). The creation of more new universities in the UK provides opportunity to scrutinize appointments procedure – and both the Universities of Worcester and Winchester have appointed equal numbers of male and female professors (Oxford, 2008).

Intrinsic factors: the university setup

Universities throughout the world are adopting a managerialist culture which emphasizes competitiveness and productivity. How does that affect women, and what other systemic factors count against them?

Workplace culture

A recent report described how in the UK a competitive culture has been imported from business (Oxford, 2008): people need to be tough and hard to survive, the smaller departmental structure has disappeared in favour of schools headed by competitive deans. Rosalind Marsh, the first female professor at one of the crop of universities founded in the 1960s as a result of the Robbins report, agrees with this analysis, ruefully citing a former vice chancellor's warning, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen". She describes an atmosphere characterized by the stick rather than the carrot, which is competitive rather than consensual, where small committees predominate and individualism is discouraged, where success is seen as acquisition of large research grants (which incidentally discriminates against the arts and humanities), and where communication is impersonal (mainly web based, in some cases even departmental meetings have been scrapped). In such an environment, few women attain senior positions.

According to Kate White, the fact that most senior managers are men in Australian universities creates a male networking structure which subtly excludes women. "Male hegemony is at the heart of the low representation of women in senior management" she claims, citing Hearn's view (2004, p. 61) that universities remain incredibly hierarchical gendered institutions. "Male dominance of science, engineering and technology has a particularly negative impact on the academic careers of women from the outset as many posts at the top of the academic hierarchy are filled by men from these disciplines."

Maboketa and Mawila (2004) base their research on open-ended, semi-structured interviews with 20 women scholars and administrators at 4 universities, of which 2 are black, 1 white, and 1 a black "technikon", or community college. Many of the black universities are imbued with a patriarchal culture partly as a result of the apartheid era, and partly through particular cultural norms. She describes how one woman quoted a proverb in her language, "If you give an institution to a woman, it will collapse", and how the belief carried over to the workplace where men believed that they had a divine right to rule (despite the fact that women were very often unrewarded "acting heads"). Maboketa (2001) cites the case of a female professor doing a heavy administrative job ("the donkey of the university") and isolated in an atmosphere dominated by men: "The culture here is male. The dress code is not written but it is male. The patterns of communication are male …Women's culture [and] women's way of doing things are put on a scale as inferior". In such an environment, women have to "prove themselves and outperform their male counterparts" (Maboketa and Mawila, 2004, p. 413).

Morley (2006) describes how research undertaken for the Gender Equity in Commonwealth Higher Education Project revealed that women were often under-represented in meetings and those who did attend subject to subtle ploys to reduce their contributions.

The picture is not totally bleak, however: Brandeis College in Boston, Massachusetts has recently recruited a number of women to senior positions, thereby creating a "refreshingly feminine", consultative atmosphere.

Promotion and recruitment criteria

It is the object of equal opportunities programmes to make recruitment as open and transparent as possible, so as to ensure fairness to all. Yet the country with the most transparent recruitment policy is Turkey, despite having less obvious equal opportunities legislation than Australia, the UK, the USA and Europe: the Higher Education Council of Turkey provides strict regulations for recruitment and selection, so everything is very transparent, which benefits women. By contrast Australia does have equal opportunities legislation, but formal guidelines, according to Özkanlı and White (2008) are open to interpretation, and the legislation can be "got around". Furthermore, management consultants often brought in to fill senior appointments tend to select for "cultural fit". All this creates an atmosphere where women can easily be bypassed.

The tendency to want to "fit the job" as closely as possible can also act against women, as the attributes thought necessary often correspond to a preconceived, and male, pattern. The ACE study of college presidents found that because of the increasing complexity of higher education institutions, those selecting leaders tended to look for similar experience of a senior executive role – which discriminates against diversity (Walker, 2007).

South Africa still has a long way to go towards a fair promotion system. At the moment, the promotional models are varied, even at the same institution: in some departments, it goes on the recommendation of the head of department, in others, promotions must be applied for, in others, there is no system at all (Mabokela and Mawila, 2004, p. 411). Younger people are favoured which discriminates against those who have for good reasons taken longer over their career; all-male selection committees put more value on a woman's ability to adapt to a masculine ethos than her academic credentials (Zulu, 2007, pp. 94-95). The double standard also prevails: a PhD was demanded for women, but often overlooked for men (Mabokela, 2001).

Demand for research productivity

There is one promotion criteria which is not vague, however, and that is the demand for research, the "publish or perish" culture, now international. On the face of it, it might not appear unjust to ask that senior managers at universities are serious scholars, however concern for research output favours men. Not only may childbearing and rearing affect productivity, but women often have higher teaching and administrative loads: Özkanlı and White (2008) cite research in one Australian university that women had more teaching, fewer PhD students, and less time for research.

Research productivity is a particularly poignant issue for South African black female academics. They are often overburdened by high teaching loads (full-timers from 8 am to lunch time and part-timers from 5 pm), but lack of time is not their only problem. They are often, nurtured in a culture antipathetic to knowledge for its own sake, simply lacking in basic research skills. Young or inexperienced researchers need careful mentoring, but there are simply not the people willing or available to provide them that sort of backing; the infrastructure may also be lacking, with inadequate libraries, and outdated computers, photocopiers, etc. The research they do may be "grass roots" – rural based, and with a gendered and non-Western perspective, which simply does not cut the ice with the leading journals (Mabokela, 2001; Mabokela and Mawila, 2004).

The requirement for research on top of teaching and administration often leads women to work harder, and longer hours, than men in order to gain promotion. The long hours culture self-evidently discriminates against mothers with young children. And those who focus on teaching excellence are discriminative against – it is seen as "not enough".

Psychological and personal barriers

Hardly surprising, given the barriers, women hold back. Zulu (2007) reports on her subjects as suffering from lack of confidence, poor self-image, conflict with other roles and fear of success. McFann (2008) claims that women struggle with being liked, are reluctant to blow their own trumpet, and often feel like an imposter if there are few other women in their department.

There is one factor however that remains the same for women all over the world and which acts as a barrier: conflict with their domestic responsibilities. According to Özkanlı (2006), women in Turkey believe that there is no gender discrimination in promotion opportunities, but are often held back by conflict with their domestic roles, particularly if they lack support or have a difficult situation through divorce, or have to care for a disabled child. Australian female academics also tend to advance more slowly (Özkanlı and White, 2008).

Özkanlı also quotes studies which claim that women suffer from juggling too many roles – private and professional – which cause them to suffer overload, and which may lead to psychological and physical disorders. This is not helped by the fact that academic jobs have so many sides to them – research, teaching, administration – all of which demand intense application.

A survey of US academics' job satisfaction (Okpara et al., 2005), unsurprisingly revealed women were less content with their pay and promotion prospects than men. But what did emerge was that women found their jobs "fascinating, satisfying, respected, useful and challenging". Thus women may enjoy academic work because of the rewards it brings in teaching and research, and congenial colleagues (as may many men!). For some, the additional pressures that come with management and administration are just not appealing.

Leadership style

Women who reach positions of authority often have a different leadership style. Priola (2004) reports on research she did at the UK's University of Wolverhampton Business School, where a high percentage of women held managerial positions (the dean, two associate deans, and several heads of departments). She carried out qualitative interviews with these managers, finding that women identified with "feminine" skills and qualities: multitasking, people and communication skills, support and care for the staff, and a team-based rather than authoritarian approach.

Özkanlı and White (2008) reported that the women in their study showed a style that was "transformational" rather than "transactional". A transformational leader is concerned about, and enables, others, is accessible, encourages questioning, values a learning environment and self-development, has integrity, and believes in building a shared vision and developing those around her.

Zulu (2007) also observes the transformational style in her study, but she also refers to the concept of self-sacrifice: women leaders have a "positive attitude to leadership" based on the sacrifice of time and energy for the benefit of others, putting the organization before their own interest in power and encouraging others to do so as well. Their attitude is caring, empathetic, creative, consultative and participatory (Zulu, p. 52).

Rosalind Marsh, however, believes that things are not so simple, and that many women suffer from a "Hera complex" – in other words, in order to survive in a masculine culture, women adopt masculine characteristics.


Leaders may be born not made, but all benefit from some prior training before they are put into a managerial role, particularly in technical areas such as financial management. On the other hand, experience itself can be the best teacher, as the female heads of department interviewed by Zulu (2007) found, although the sheer complexity of the job gave the women problems managing time and stress.

However, research productivity is still the key to the academic ivory tower. Women in teaching institutions are in particular need of training in research skills – how to submit papers, apply for grants, establish a research agenda, use methodologies, etc. (Mabokela, 2001).

A major contributor to success in an academic career can be association with a senior colleague who acts as a mentor. Okpara et al. (2005) propose that senior women should be encouraged to support other women. Mabokela and Mawila (2004) describe how their South African women felt particularly vulnerable when they had to present papers at a conference; mentoring here would have been particularly useful but was not forthcoming, perhaps because those involved themselves lacked the necessary experience and were unwilling to admit it.

Strategies for change

Kate White is pessimistic about change in the next decade or so, believing that: "The real issue is the under-representation of women as full professors, the recruitment pool for female senior managers. It has been estimated that at the present rate of progress it will take 50 years for women in the UK to achieve parity with men in the professoriate, and 45 years in Australia".

However, there have been plenty of positive suggestions as to what both organizations and individuals can do, and some are listed below.

  • Pay comparable salaries for comparable work responsibilities (Opkara et al., 2005).
  • Ensure that selection and promotion are transparent and based on objective criteria.
  • Recognize that women's careers will be interrupted through demands of parenting, and adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible working. Talking about the particular situation of Turkey, Özkanlı (2006) suggests that a solution to role conflict lies in the adoption of more "democratic" family lifestyles, with shared responsibilities, hired household and childcare help. The closeness of Turkish families, with grandparents willing to help, is a great advantage.
  • Provide opportunities for staff development and highly visible assignments – for example, being involved with technological innovation.
  • Recognize the value of excellent teaching, and reward accordingly. On the other hand, research is likely to remain the way of getting ahead, and women should be trained in research and encouraged to build up a good portfolio (Mabokela, 2001; Mabokela and Mawila, 2004; Okpara et al., 2005).
  • Higher education institutions should become, where they are not already, aware of gender issues; equal opportunities policies should be put in place where they are not (Mabokelae, 2001). Gender issues are an organizational, and not merely a woman's problem.
  • Support from mentors and networking are invaluable. For example, in South Africa, Thuthuka is a mentoring initiative which mixes historically advantaged and disadvantaged universities.

Okpara et al. (2005) see creating an equal environment through comparable salaries, mentoring, etc., as essential to ensure a talented and motivated workforce. Their conclusions are for the USA, however it is difficult to see that the same observations might not apply the world over.


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