Transparency Needed For More Women To Become University Leaders

Women have now caught up with – and in some subjects surpassed – men in university enrolments. Yet the number of women heads of universities remains small globally. Overcoming this equity hurdle will require institutional changes, including greater transparency in the way leaders are selected, a conference in London heard.

According to Louise Morley, professor of education and director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, UK, the lack of women leaders in universities has become a global problem irrespective of the social, political or cultural context.

“There might be different motivations and drivers in the global North and South, but it is a global phenomenon. It does not matter whether [countries] have equity legislation or military regimes, they still have an under-representation of women at the highest levels of higher education,” Morley told the British Council’s “Going Global” conference held in London from 13-15 March.

“Going Global” followed on the heels of an international conference in Sri Lanka from 6-8 March, organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities on women as agents of change through higher education.

Many women university leaders, including vice-chancellors from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Turkey, attended both conferences.

Under-representation “Going Global” heard that the number of women enrolled in tertiary institutions had grown almost twice as fast as that of men since 1970, rising sixfold from 10.8 million in 1970 to 77.4 million in 2008 according to UNESCO figures. Worldwide there are slightly more female than male undergraduates.

But UNESCO does not collate global statistics on women leaders in higher education. It does not go beyond the numbers of female staff in universities, Morley said. “What we do know is that in individual countries there is massive under-representation of women in top roles.

“This under-representation reflects not only continued inequalities between men and women, but missed opportunities for women to contribute to solving the most pressing problems facing humankind,” Morley said, referring to the importance of research carried out at universities.

In some areas such as health, welfare and education, women comprise 60% to 75% of graduates. Yet high rates of women’s participation have yet to translate into proportional representation in the labour market or access to leadership and decision-making positions, Morley pointed out.

Even in the European Union only 13% of higher education institutions, and 9% of research institutions, are headed by women, with the highest figures in Scandinavia.

In some parts of Europe there are policies in favour of women in higher education but weak results, Morley said. “Why is it so slow to change? Why is equality legislation not working?”

This was echoed by Professor Charity Angya, vice-chancellor of Benue State University in Nigeria. “There are more women now going to school and getting an education, but the question is: Why is there no change in terms of their involvement in higher education management?

“Before now the issue was ‘where are the women’? Now the women are there, the resource is there, but women are not getting in [top positions]. It goes beyond the problem of the women not being qualified,” Angya said.

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