Women and change in higher education: so what’s new?

By Dr Diane Bebbington

Activity appears to be burgeoning both here and abroad aiming to challenge gender inequality in higher education. This is in spite of the fact that women now make up just over half of all undergraduates globally and university workforces are diversifying through knowledge globalisation and the cross-national transference of professionals engaged in academic research. It is remarkable that women are still so poorly represented in the most powerful, decision-making positions of institutions of higher education.

Last week, the universities of Durham and Newcastle hosted a conference Women and Change In Higher Education: Culture and Careers and in June a conference in Brussels – Gender Summit Europe 2014 will convene experts from all over the European Union from research, industry and policy to look at gender in research evidence. A key aim will be to look at how Horizon 2020, the current €80bn funding programme of the European Commission will, under article 15, ‘ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation content’.

So what’s being done? Women are well-represented at undergraduate level in medicine but few make it into professorial positions. By implementing the national Programme for Women Professors and the Pro Exzellenzia Programme, the University Medical Centre Hamburg, Germany, aims to support women’s career prospects through a variety of activities such as providing incentives for organisational change, allocating research time to women doctors and providing personal development through mentoring.

The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme is targeted at academic and professional women working in UK universities and seeks to enable them to engage with leadership development at an early stage in their careers. The programme, with four cohorts in Glasgow, Bristol, London and Manchester, has been hugely popular. 580 women have signed up from 100 higher education institutions, well up on the numbers expected and plans are now afoot to run Aurora in Northern Ireland.

Clearly momentum is gathering and two themes emerge from much of the debate. The first is the need to reach out to all women regardless of their differences and the other is to look far more critically at how inequality is perpetuated by the system. Data on women are still rarely disaggregated by race, disability or other ‘differences’. There is much talk about childcare but this often overlooks the experiences of women who are not mothers, but still shoulder the burden of work in the home. When it is reported that 17% of university leaders are women, to which women does this refer? By failing to analyse and publish data in finer detail, women who differ on account of race, disability, and other differences, are effectively being marginalised. Progress can only be made when all efforts to bring about change are truly inclusive.

The second theme is around organisational change. The tendency is to focus on women through developing their leadership potential rather than transforming the organisations in which they work. Rarely is the spotlight turned on those who occupy positions of privilege, yet ironically it is those in such spaces – the leaders of higher education – who are called upon to tackle inequalities. Paradoxically, we are asking a leadership that is relatively homogeneous to champion equality. How much change is likely to happen?

Dr Diane Bebbington is the Leadership Foundation’s diversity advisor.