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Why aren’t there more female vice-chancellors?

Published on 09 October 2019
Cheryl de la Rey
Professor Cheryl de la Rey
Professor Cheryl de la Rey

Professor Cheryl de la Rey is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

From government to industry, and in every part of the world, women remain under-represented in positions of power, responsibility, and leadership. Regrettably, this is no less true in universities – so often progressive and enlightened institutions in other respects. In South Africa, for example, there are just four female vice-chancellors – of which I am one.

Addressing the stark absence of women in senior leadership positions was among a number of recommendations arising from the Commonwealth Women's Forum – held as part of last month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London. So, what can be done to change the status quo in higher education and beyond?

For change to happen, I believe we need to interrogate our fundamental assumptions of what we mean by good leadership. Part of the problem is that characteristics associated with good leadership are traits typically associated with masculinity: assertive individualism, certainty, and firmness, for example. Recruitment and selection processes – often unintentionally and implicitly – continue to favour those who display behaviours that comply with these dominant notions of good leadership.

Queen bees and battle-axes

These assumptions about good leadership mean that female leaders must navigate a complex set of contradictions. On the one hand, there is an expectation that women are going to represent a different leadership style: more participatory, cooperative, and empathic. Yet at the same time we can be judged as too soft, and not firm enough. Those women who do demonstrate strong assertive behaviour tend to face criticism for being 'too much like men'. These gendered expectations are manifested in terms such as 'queen bee' and popular media discussions about female bosses.

But research has illuminated a number of more subtle, everyday gender biases that shape women's careers. The career narratives of women working in academia reveal that career advancement is often experienced as a struggle that has to be fought alone. 'You have to fight your own battles' is a sentiment reflected in many accounts. And those women who do apply for leadership positions are often said to be 'brave enough to apply'. The competitive and sometimes public selection processes can serve as a disincentive for women, since being openly competitive and ambitious are rarely seen as flattering feminine characteristics.

A desirable choice?

The job of a vice-chancellor in the 21st century entails at least ten hours a day at the office, numerous after-hours events, and an expectation that you will be available over weekends. The internationalisation of universities has expanded the range of skills required, overall job remit, and travel requirements. Moreover, in highly politicised contexts such as South Africa, it often involves dealing with protests by workers and students.

Naturally, these demands on one's time and energy assume that there is someone else to take care of domestic and family responsibilities. Yet in most cultures, women still bear the main responsibility for managing family life.

These family responsibilities have a disproportionate impact on women's careers, but not always in direct linear ways. For example, having young children is not always a relevant factor; it can be teenage children who require a great deal of attention, or ageing parents who require care and support.

So, while countless women and men have remarked that they would not like my job, it is important to acknowledge that external factors can either facilitate or constrain our individual choices. And these gender-related factors continue to convince many of us that the job of vice-chancellor is simply not a desirable choice for a woman.

Contributing to change

Women and leadership in higher education is a complex, multidimensional issue, and so a multipronged approach is required to solve it. This means interventions to address gender bias both within and outside the university. Universities are embedded in larger societal contexts, and this means that changing our organisational practices and processes will require concerted attention over a sustained period, accompanied by external societal changes in gender-related expectations.

Despite these powerful societal influences, universities must endeavour to identify the unsaid rules and informal practices that inhibit women from moving into leadership roles, and then resolve to change them. In doing so, we have a unique opportunity to encourage future generations of professionals and leaders to rethink their assumptions about what leadership means. Meanwhile, those of us who occupy leadership roles can contribute to change by talking about our experiences – not only the challenges, but also the immense sense of achievement and fulfilment that can be derived from leading a university.