Leading in a male domain

Professor Rebecca Bunting, Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, shares her experience on rising to the top

The gender divide in senior positions in UK universities does not surprise me but it does sadden me that in my 30-year career in higher education, so little has changed.

The number of female Vice-Chancellors in the UK has recently increased slightly, but the pace of change is very slow. There are plenty of excellent women in roles as Deputy Vice-Chancellors or equivalent, which is perhaps the more traditional route to the top position, so the question is, are these women facing continued rejection when they apply for jobs, or are they simply not putting themselves forward for Vice-Chancellor positions? We need to understand both of these scenarios.

There are stereotypes of leadership which present it as a typically male domain, such as being assertive, authoritative and heroic, and such stereotypes are very difficult to shift. In other words, implicit assumptions about masculinity are translated into the blueprint for a strong leader, and women tend to fall outside the model. I am certain that many men in senior roles are themselves very uncomfortable with such a narrow and limiting definition, yet it prevails, much as young children think of engineers as men with oily rags and dirty overalls!

So when boards come to appoint their Vice-Chancellor or other senior posts in universities, to what extent is this implicit bias operating? Is there unconscious [or worse, conscious] bias in the selection process? When I was first appointed to a post in a university, I was interviewed by a panel of seven men. I am certain that would not happen today. But individuals bring their own values and world view to the selection panel and this is what is so hard to unpick.

For women there is often a challenge in managing the multiple responsibilities of family and career, and again there is slow progress in the higher education sector in recognising the actual and psychological barriers to career progression.’

The responsibilities of leadership are wide reaching and wide ranging. For women there is often a challenge in managing the multiple responsibilities of family and career, and again there is slow progress in the higher education sector in recognising the actual and psychological barriers to career progression. ‘Juggling’ is the term often used, but of course jugglers drop things and it is not always possible for women to achieve a workable or acceptable balance and so they do not aspire to senior leadership. But a note of caution here: women without these family responsibilities are also absent from senior roles, so this argument only goes so far.

In asking the question as to whether female leaders are different from male leaders we can drift quite easily into the stereotypes. There is a wealth of research literature on this topic and it is a complex matter. We are all different and gender is only one of the factors that determines how we think and behave, though clearly an important one. I think both male and female leaders are capable of what might be defined as ‘strong and soft’ styles of leadership. I think that a good leader has to be purposeful, trustworthy, strategic, determined and at the same time able to demonstrate emotional intelligence in the way they engage with their role, so people-oriented, caring and supportive. These are not binary opposites, but essential attributes for successful leadership.

Universities are doing a great deal to promote gender equality more widely, through their teaching, research and outreach. We work with young people to raise aspirations to come to university and to break down the assumptions they have about certain subjects [back to the ‘engineers are always men’ example]. There are many initiatives to support aspiring women within universities, such as leadership programmes for women. Pay equality is of particular concern, as well as the number of women who are professors.

One bit of advice I would give to women working towards a leadership role in higher education is to find a female mentor, someone who will guide, advise, challenge and encourage you, having been through similar experiences themselves. I think mentoring is invaluable. I have a good strong circle of women colleagues in senior roles and enjoy the support this network gives me.

I have got used to entering rooms full of men. I do sometimes enjoy the disruption we women can cause to the status quo, such as the difficulty some men have in knowing what to call us. Are we ‘women’ or ‘ladies’ or female Vice-Chancellors [as though anyone would ever say ‘male Vice-Chancellors…]? But more seriously, the leadership in higher education is changing and I am very pleased to be part of that process.

Prof Bunting’s article is part of the UB Equality in HE series. Look for the ‘Equality in HE’ logo in the next issue of UB for more features, news and views on this subject. If you’d like to take part in the series, or know someone who is championing gender equality in the higher education sector, get in touch. We would love to hear and share your views. Email the editor at: [email protected]

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