28 June 2013 11:30

Why are there so few female Vice Chancellors? That was the question being asked at the Missing Women in Higher Education Leadership Conference held on June 26 at Lancaster University.

It was thrilling for me to welcome so many people from all over the UK and thankfully even the sun was shining so the campus looked at its best for our visitors -I’m always pleased when people say good things about their experience of visiting Lancaster!

This topic is of national concern, which is why the Times Higher Education magazine sent their reporter Jack Grove to the conference for a planned article on the event.

I researched this topic for my PhD and it’s long been a concern of mine that there seems to be so little room at the top for over half the population.

The Equality Challenge Unit confirms that only 13% of Vice Chancellors and 19% of Professors are women, in a sector where around 50% of early career academics and almost 60% of students are now female.

Worryingly, the numbers of senior women are now in decline as the baby boomers start to retire.

Yet not only do more diverse leadership teams produce more successful organisations, but it is a matter of social justice that women are fairly represented at all levels and in all walks of life. A culture of fairness for women is ultimately fairer for all.

During the day we were privileged to be entertained by five eminent speakers who spoke of their own experiences and provoked much debate.

Professor Dame Julia King, the Vice Chancellor of Aston University, opened the conference with her very impressive account of what she is doing in her own institution to tackle the under-representation of women in leadership. As she says ‘finding the missing women, how hard can that be?’

Throughout the day we had fun working in small groups to discuss the issues the speakers’ raised. For example, all the women delegates had examples of having to work hard at “fitting in” in senior leadership circles and often feeling invisible.

But by the end of the day, we had come up with several actions which will make a difference, like involving senior men in all gender diversity conversations and introducing women-only leadership education.

My dream for the day was that people would have plenty of time during breaks and group sessions to build new networks and consider steps that they can take to back at their own institution to influence what’s going on for women in leadership.

I funded this conference from my FASS Knowledge Exchange Fellowship and from the feedback I have had so far it has been welcomed as a timely event in the growing conversation about ‘the missing women at the top’ everywhere. As one delegate said ‘thank you for such a stimulating event – a really enjoyable day’. I am hoping this keeps the spotlight on this vital issue which needs addressing now.

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