Look closely at a graduation ceremony. You will notice that sitting at the front of the stage are university leaders, deans, senior academics and dignitaries, all of whom are more likely to be men, while those at the back – the teaching academics – are probably an equal mix of sexes. How do our students interpret this – if they even notice it?

It is now almost 40 years since equal opportunities legislation was introduced in the UK, yet women are still not well represented in senior positions at universities. In the UK only 12 per cent of university governing bodies are chaired by a woman and only 17 per cent of higher education institutions are led by a woman vice-chancellor. Again in the UK, less than a third of business school deans are women, but in contrast 56 per cent of our students are female and are just as likely to be taught by a woman as a man. When they meet more senior staff – heads of department, deans, pro vice-chancellors and vice-chancellors – they frequently face an absence of female role models.

There are complex reasons for women’s continued low representation in senior levels within higher education. These include self-perception and a belief in what women can achieve, the extent to which women feel they have the tools – knowledge, skills and networks – to progress. Apparently, women often question how they could manage a senior position, its politics and its impact on their lives. Women with families may think about the practicalities of such a role, especially if it requires regular early morning/evening meetings or international travel. Are senior roles advertised internally and/or externally with an open and transparent process or do they come about as a result of an obscure appointments committee? If interview panels are dominated by men with one token woman then the decisions they are making should be questioned.

An upward career trajectory in business schools requires outstanding achievements in three areas: learning and teaching, research and academic enterprise. Early career academics focus on developing their learning and teaching practice and some research indicates women become so embedded in this vital work that they underdevelop elsewhere – which can result in a dead end for career progression. A key indicator of career success, in many business schools, is identified in terms of research output (3* and 4* world class publications) as well as the generation of significant research income. This requires hard graft. Unfortunately, the time when many individuals establish their research careers clashes with the period when women may want a career break to raise children. Returning to the workplace is challenging, with some women discovering that they are playing catch-up for years.

We confine women to minor academic roles

As well as world-class research success, business schools require evidence of success in academic enterprise such as generating business connections and partnerships and also income from executive education, business connections and contract research. There are now an increasing number of initiatives to support women in senior leadership roles in universities, however, it is still too early to assess their impact.

As an academic, who had a career break and moved into a senior position, I ask myself – what enabled me to achieve this? In part, it was stubbornness and irritation – I didn’t want to be defined in a particular position because of my gender. I used my career break to improve my qualifications, write a book and gain additional business-related experiences. Later, I was fortunate as one of my managers, a male dean, mentored me and encouraged me to apply for senior positions. He gave me advice about networking and ensured my CV fitted the profile of a business school leader. I took every opportunity to develop experience in all three academic endeavours – learning and teaching, research and academic enterprise. I think the lesson that took me the longest to learn is that if a woman is not valued by her organisation and it does not want women leaders to succeed, then it is time to move on. There are plenty of business schools and universities that do want diverse teams.

Some blocks that women face, such as those presented by the structuring of academic research careers, are very clear. However, more subtle barriers exist and our use of language gives clues to underlying assumptions. The language used around different types of promotion demonstrates this. After my experience of ‘acting up’ in a temporary senior role – I became interested in the gendered nature of this kind of temporary role. Early research findings, conducted with colleagues in the universities of Durham and Loughborough, indicate women in business schools are often asked to ‘act up’ – an interesting phrase as it suggests ‘bad behaviour’ and a ‘temporary state’ while men take an ‘interim’ role which suggests something provisional with gravitas. Initial findings indicate that following a period of ‘acting up’, women ‘go back’ to their original position in the organisation. The good news is that having enjoyed a senior leadership position these women then frequently move to another institution and become a leader. However, their original employer loses their talent. In contrast, interim men regularly have their positions confirmed.

Finally, I argue for women’s representation on the basis of fairness and equity but frustratingly, while the glass ceiling remains firmly in place, organisations are failing to benefit from the astute business skills which senior women bring. Reports by organisations such as Thomson Reuters and Credit Suisse indicate companies with diverse boards tend to be more successful. In other words diverse teams do improve performance and are good for an organisation.

The evidence is compelling, nonetheless, the question of why is it taking so long for women to be fairly represented at senior levels in business schools and universities remains.

The author is pro vice-chancellor and dean of Westminster Business School, London.

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