3 December 2018

Diversity in HE Leadership

A topic that needs much thought and more progress, Deian Hopkin starts to explore some of the issues in HE. 

Securing a diverse list of candidates for senior positions is, as we all know, a key requirement by many clients but can often be a significant challenge.  Despite the evident sincerity of the aspiration, the most senior ranks of the higher education profession are still predominantly occupied by white males.  This is true of many other professions, but education ought to be one sector where the profile of management reflects the profile of the students.  On that basis alone 55% of Vice Chancellors should be women and 16% drawn from the black and ethnic minority groups.  Over the past few years, there has certainly been an improvement in the number of female Vice Chancellors of which there are now 50, compared with 36 in 2016 (source: WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2018, Times Higher Education). However, there are just 5 non-white Vice Chancellors.

Further down the management chain there are grounds for concern.  A recent report Women Count: Leaders in Higher Education 2018 warns that the proportion of female academic heads, such as deans or heads of school, has not improved in recent years.  There are 37 higher education institutions with no female head in their academic structure and a further 54 with just one.  Moreover, Advance HE, the former Equality Challenge Unit, has recently published statistics for 2016/17 which shows that out of 19,000 professors at UK universities, more than 14,000 are white men and 4,635 are female, 24% of the cohort.  It is staggering to find that just 90 black men and 25 black women were recorded.  There is clearly a serious supply chain issue.

What are the solutions?  Athena Swann is one step forward in dealing with gender imbalance, although it is striking to note that over the 13 years of its existence, no university has gained the highest Gold award in recognition of its achievement in addressing gender issues. While just 16 out of 99 member universities have gained Silver status, 31 universities are not members at all which calls into question the impact of the charter.  It is significant, moreover, that in contrast to Athena Swann’s 159 members (which includes research institutes and a large number of Irish members) and 766 award holders, the Race Equality Charter has just 48 members and 10 award holders.  The opportunities for change may be there, but are they being used?

The Irish government has now announced a radical new plan to deal with the issue.  The country’s Gender Action Plan proposes ambitious targets for gender equality and threatens to financially penalise universities, up to 10% of their government grants, who fall short.  Their target is 40% of the professoriate to be women, roughly double the present level.  Interestingly, no mention is made of a target for senior management and it is notable that to date no woman has been appointed as a university president in Ireland.

Are targets the answer, bearing in mind that they do not appear to have worked elsewhere in Europe?  A report last year in Monitor Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren 2017 forecasts that just six of the 14 universities in the Netherlands had achieved the individual targets set for them despite the government offering substantial financial inducements rather than sanctions.  Such inducements or indeed financial sanctions would be difficult to apply in the UK given the shift away from government support to student fees.

The uncomfortable truth is that there may be deeper cultural and quasi-political reasons for this state of affairs such as recruitment practices, succession planning, the evaluation of skill and experience and the determination of capacity and potential.  It is also noticeable that in some communities an academic career is seen as less attractive than medicine, the law and accounting.  It does not help that according to Universities and Colleges Employers Association black and ethnic minority staff generally are paid, on average, 13.3% less than white staff.

Simply increasing the proportion of women or BME staff in the professoriate is no guarantee of progression or access to senior management positions.  The challenge therefore is both to expand the intake into the profession and then provide effective mentoring and staff development targeted at under-represented groups to enable them to apply for leadership positions.  Close attention also needs to be paid to the criteria for appointments and the process by which potential senior staff are identified and assessed; in this respect the composition of appointing panels needs some scrutiny.  Beyond this, there is also the deeper issue of gender-sharing responsibilities for raising families which requires support from employers and recognising that career breaks should not be taken as an indication of a lack of expertise or experience.

One thing is certain.  Unless major improvements are made in HR practices and, more sensitively, in the culture of universities, progress on diversity will remain slow whatever awards are on offer.

by Deian Hopkin