Sustainable leadership in the higher education sector

Bettina Rigg looks at the importance of diversity in developing sustainable leadership within higher education institutions

Estates, energy, student numbers and finance are often what spring to mind when we think of sustainability in the context of higher education institutions. Generally, less attention is given to talent management and succession planning and the importance of diversity for the leadership strength of institutions in the future.

The lack of diversity at the highest levels of the academy and on Governing Bodies is well publicised. According to the Equality in Higher Education: statistical report 2014, published by the Equality Challenge Unit:

  • 79.9% of vice-chancellors are men
  • 69.5% of pro vice-chancellors are men
  • 78.3% of professors are men

This is despite 44.5% of all academic staff being women. Amongst black academic staff, the balance is even more extreme with there being fewer than 100 black professors in the UK and of these only 20 are women. This lack of diversity is not confined to higher education. It is part of a bigger picture in the wider public sector, business, industry and Government.

There have been a number of initiatives to increase the number of women and black academic staff progressing to senior levels within institutions. These include the Equality Challenge Unit’s Charters (Athena Swan, Gender Equality (now included in Athena Swan) and Race Equality), and the Aurora leadership programme for women run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. However, the statistics show that there has been little change so far.

It may be that there is just a long lead in period before the effects of the various initiatives start to make an impact but it’s still unclear whether these initiatives alone will be sufficient to stimulate change or whether there are other ‘blockers’ at play.

What do we mean by diversity?

Diversity is much more than gender and race. The essence is difference and variety. The starting point has to be the nine protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are age, disability, gender re-assignment (referred to as gender identity by the Equality Challenge Unit), marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief and sexual orientation in addition to gender and race. However, diversity goes beyond the protected characteristics. It includes the characteristics and social contexts that make us different.

Why is diversity important for sustainable leadership in higher education institutions?

Much of the research has been in the context of gender where there are various studies that show that diversity brings benefits to the financial success of organisations and, in particular, the effect of women on boards. Apart from the obvious importance to institutions of financial health, diversity of views and inputs at senior management level are essential to the quality of the debate and decision-making process.                                                                                      

The Equality Challenge Unit together with seven partners from the higher education sector commissioned research into the business case for equality and diversity in higher education institutions. The outputs are contained in their report published in October 2014 ‘The rationale for equality and diversity: How vice-chancellors and principals are leading the change.’

Various themes emerge including the importance of diversity in the commitment to excellence. These themes are equally applicable to the leadership strength of institutions in the future.

Why are leadership teams in higher education institutions not more diverse?

In the context of gender, many reasons are suggested in the research and by commentators including the reluctance of women to put themselves forward and the impact of stereotypical considerations in decisions on appointments and promotions. It may also be the effects of the ‘glass cliff’. The ‘glass cliff’ was identified by researchers at the University of Exeter. It is the concept that women are only promoted to senior roles in times of crisis and when those roles attract a high risk of failure. This may mean that those opportunities which become available to women are high risk and are therefore not attractive to women. 

The work we have been doing at Veale Wasbrough Vizards with higher education institutions has suggested that the absence of mentoring and support, the methodology of recruitment consultants when shortlisting, job design and the ‘full-time culture’ are all key factors in lack of gender diversity.

Meeting the obligations under the Equality Act 2010 remains an imperative for higher education institutions. Failing to address issues that may contribute to lack of diversity at senior levels in institutions may expose an institution to claims, particularly of indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination can arise where an institution applies a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) to an individual that it applies, or would apply, to persons who do not share the characteristic but that puts, or would put, persons sharing that characteristic at a particular disadvantage, it in fact puts that individual at that disadvantage and where the institution cannot justify the PCP by showing it to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. PCP is very broad and includes recruitment and promotion criteria.

Relatively recently, there has been an increasing focus on the concept of unconscious bias (sometimes referred to as implicit bias) in the context of broader diversity (including gender) and we have seen an increasing number of requests to assist with development  of staff in higher education institutions who are members of recruitment and pay and promotions panels.

In 2012 Carnes et al published a research paper ‘Promoting Institutional Change Through Bias Literacy’. This looked at equal opportunities for the participation and advancement of men and women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) and concluded that institutional transformation is required to ensure equal opportunities. Implicit bias was identified as one of the issues that needed to be addressed and bias literacy as one of the steps towards institutional transformation regarding gender equality. Although this research looked at one specific area, there are lessons which can be translated to the wider operation of higher education institutions. 

What is unconscious bias?

The following definition of unconscious bias can be found in Equality Challenge Unit: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education. 

‘Unconscious bias is a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brains making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.’

Unconscious or implicit bias can occur in many situations and in relation to many prejudices. These include physical characteristics/appearances, social contexts such as socio-economic group, stereotyping and in group favouritism. In many circumstances these prejudices may amount to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (for example not promoting a woman because of stereotypical assumptions about having children) but unconscious bias is much wider and includes prejudices which may not satisfy that definition.

Institutional transformation – a strategy for remedying unconscious bias

The research by Carnes et al identified that unconscious (implicit) bias is a habit that can be changed. Awareness raising and staff development through the use of inter-active workshops are essential aspects together with the provision of a toolkit of strategies to equip relevant staff to deal with these biases.

Changing behaviour in this way will take time, effort and a willingness on the part of those decision makers to be open to change. To be really effective, it needs to be led by vice-chancellors and senior management teams who should be the first group to undertake awareness raising. Governing Bodies should have it on their agendas and it should be part of the induction for new members of Governing Bodies as well as part of ongoing development for established members of Governing Bodies.

It is our experience from working with institutions on equality and diversity issues (including Athena Swan) that institutions that are really committed to equality and diversity, and where this is driven from the top, are able to bring about this type of institutional transformation.

Bettina Rigg is a Partner and Head of HE at leading national law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards. She can be contacted on 020 7665 0960 or at


29 October 2020 11am (GMT)

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