A growing number of universities are appointing female vice-chancellors, a sector-wide survey carried out by the higher education intelligence platform HEi-know has found, suggesting that women may be finally breaking through the higher education glass ceiling.
In the last three years, 2012-15, and including the first two months of 2016, a total of 19 women have become university vice-chancellors out of 66 new hires. This represents more than one-quarter of new recruits, or 29%.
In the last year and two months up to February 2016, the trend appears to have accelerated with 15 women being appointed to the top position in higher education institutions. Eight of these took up their posts last year; seven are assuming or have assumed their new positions in 2016.
For years, concerns have been raised about the seemingly intractable problem of the gender divide in the upper echelons of university administration. Programmes have been put in place to mentor and encourage female high flyers with ambition and ability.
Now, it seems, those programmes are bearing fruit – or the climate has changed enough to persuade governing bodies to hire women.
‘I am feeling very encouraged,’ says Professor Janet Beer (below), Vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool. ‘Numbers were stuck at 16% for a long time, but the fact that 29% of new vice-chancellors are women is great.’
Professor Liz Barnes, the new Vice-chancellor at Staffordshire University who takes over on 1 April this year, agrees. ‘I think universities are becoming conscious of the need to have a balanced senior management team and governing bodies are becoming more balanced, as well,’ she says.
Numbers were stuck at 16% for a long time, but the fact that 29% of new vice-chancellors are women is great – Professor Janet Beer
Today there are four women running Russell Group universities. Dame Nancy Rothwell at Manchester has been joined by Professor Alice Gast at Imperial College, Professor Janet Beer at Liverpool and, most recently, by Professor Louise Richardson at Oxford. One-sixth of the group’s heads are now female.
Women have been or are being put in charge of Million+ universities, including Professor Andrea Nolan at Edinburgh Napier and Professor Liz Barnes at Staffordshire. Universities in the Alliance Group such as Plymouth (Professor Judith Petts) and Salford (Professor Helen Marshall) have women leaders. An unaligned university, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has appointed a woman, Baroness Valerie Amos, formerly Labour’s Development Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords, as its chief executive officer. And a leading London medical school, St George’s, has appointed its first female principal, Professor Jenny Higham, a consultant gynaecologist who came from Imperial College.
Progress is due to increasing awareness in universities, according to Professor Barnes. ‘People have been gender-blind in the past and bringing the issue to the fore has helped,’ she says.
Professor Beer says there is an appetite for appointments of a different nature. She points to the work done by the Committee of University Chairs in raising consciousness about the importance of diversity on governing bodies.
There has been a cultural change, says Professor Kathryn Mitchell, Vice-chancellor of the University of Derby. ‘Many more women are now taking PhDs than before, so the pipeline is increasing and that means many more women are coming through the system with the right qualifications.’
The increasing emphasis on rewarding academics for teaching as opposed to research may also be having an effect because women tend to be strongly represented in teaching, says Professor Barnes. In addition, the emphasis on universities becoming more student-focused may be benefiting women, according to Professor Mitchell.
Professor Barnes believes that the programmes to help women rise up the ranks have worked, but more needs to be done. ‘We still need mentoring,’ she says. ‘Women tend to lack confidence and to sit back. They should be putting themselves forward.’
Tony Tysome, Director of HEi-know, said it appeared that initiatives such as Aurora, run by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education to develop women leaders in universities, were beginning to have an impact.
‘However, while progress appears to be being made, women senior managers still have a long way to go before being on an equal footing with men. Women still make up only a little more than a fifth of vice-chancellors across the higher education sector,’ he said.