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Women and leadership in academia

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Some statistics

Susanne Baer gave a keynote speech at the 5th European Conference on Gender Equality in Higher Education in Berlin, at which she claimed that "numbers matter", referring to numbers of undergraduates – particularly in science programmes. What mattered even more, she went on, was quality, in the sense of women trickling through the system to become decision makers in higher education (Blättel-Mink, 2007).

All over the world, women form a high proportion of students – it is predicted that by 2010 there will be 7.76 million male and 10.72 million female undergraduates in the USA – but are under-represented in academic leadership positions, as full professor or higher.

In the USA, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conducted a survey in 2005/06, which showed that – in a country where it is prohibited to discriminate according to gender in education – women were nevertheless having difficulty achieving top faculty ranks. Any sector needs to make full use of its talent, but in this sector good practices are crucial because of threatened shortages (West and Curtis, 2006).

Their survey showed how, despite the growth in the number of women completing PhDs (in 2004, over half the terminal degrees awarded were received by women), only 31 per cent held full-time tenured positions, while in doctorate granting institutions the proportion fell to 25 per cent. Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of full professors were women; who were more likely to hold positions at associated degree colleges (47 per cent), rather than masters or baccalaureate (28 or 29 per cent), while only 19 per cent were at doctorate granting institutions.

According to another study (Walker, 2007), in 2006 23 per cent of college presidents were women – but they were most likely to be presidents of a community college (29 per cent) and least likely to be presidents of a doctorate granting institution (13.8 per cent).

In the UK, the proportion of female professors is even smaller at less than 20 per cent – just 2,885 out of 16,485, while women occupied 12,375 of the 33,650 senior lecturer jobs, and are expected to outnumber men in the profession by 2010 (Oxford, 2008).

In Australia, 24.5 per cent of associate professors are women, and 17 per cent full professors according to 2005 statistics. In South Africa, while 41 per cent of academic positions were held by women, only 26 per cent held managerial and executive positions, and only 17 per cent were professors.

In Commonwealth countries, Morley (2005, p. 211) reports on research conducted by the Association of Commonwealth Universities which showed that women are seriously under-represented in senior positions.

Image: Figure 1. Graph showing the percentage of women professors and executive heads in selected Commonwealth countries.

Figure 1. Percentage of women professors and executive heads in selected Commonwealth countries (Source: Singh, J. (2002), Still a Single Sex Profession? Female Staff Numbers in Commonwealth Universities, Association of Commonwealth Universities, London, quoted in Morley, 2005)

In the European Union, the average proportion of female professors is 14 per cent. Four countries from Central and Eastern Europe, four from Southern Europe, Belgium and the UK are above the mean. Strangely, Norway and Denmark, countries with a long history of egalitarian legislation, are below the mean (Özkanlı, 2006).

Image: Figure 2. Graph depicting distribution of professors by gender at universities in selected European countries, 2000-2001.

Figure 2. Distribution of professors by gender at universities in selected European countries, 2000-2001 (Source: European Commission Directorate-General for Research (2003), Women and Science Statistics and Indicators, EC, Belgium, quoted in Morley, 2006)

None of these countries has as high a proportion as Turkey, where women comprise 39 per cent of the academic workforce, of which 27 per cent are full professors and 31 per cent associate professors. Compared with some countries in Europe, Turkey has had little specific anti-discrimination legislation, although Atatürk gave women equal rights in the constitution (Özlanlı and White, 2008). Interestingly, the proportion of women in senior positions appears to increase the more the organization is oriented to research or graduate studies, although very few women are employed as deans or rectors (Özkanlı, 2006).

Unsurprisingly, academic women's salaries also fall behind those of men. The AAUP survey showed that even when women were on the same rank as their male colleagues, they were likely to be on a lower point in the scale. Thus the pay of women professors was 88 per cent of that of men's, and women's salaries in general stood at 81 per cent (West and Curtis, 2006). In the UK, a survey in 2002-03 showed that women's pay could lag behind that of men by as much as £5,000 (Priola, 2004).

Opcara et al. (2005) conjecture on reasons for the pay gap, proposing such factors as an unfair promotion system, concentration in the lower academic ranks, and additional caring burdens which make women feel too tired to perform optimally.

Taking examples from around the world, we shall now go on to consider the factors that prevent women from breaking the glass ceiling in reasonable numbers.