Scant progress on women becoming university leaders
July 20, 2019

By Yojana Sharma

Published in University World News

Women in Pacific Rim universities have made little progress in moving into university leadership positions over the past five years, despite a raft of initiatives at the university level, a report on the gender gap at top research universities in the region has found.

The 2019 APRU Gender Gap Report was produced by the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), with 65 member universities in Asia, Australia, North America and South America, and was unveiled at a conference of APRU university presidents held on 23-25 June in California, United States.

Conducted five years after a similar survey of women leaders in APRU universities, it found from the 40 APRU universities and members of Universitas 21 that returned the survey questionnaires by December 2018 that while women make up half of university employees across the region, their employment is skewed towards the lower levels of academia and in administrative positions.

“The key overall trends remain similar to those in the 2013 survey in that females are under-represented in university leadership positions, most notably in academic, academic management and executive positions,” according to the report by the Asia-Pacific Women in Leadership Program (APWiL), set up in 2013 under the aegis of APRU.

“I was shocked to be honest, with all the work around the world over the past five years, I would have expected to see some progress,” said Katherine Belov, professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney in Australia and the university’s pro-vice chancellor for global engagement, who was involved in analysing the results.

She added: “One hundred per cent of our [member] universities have policies around gender and around childcare, but there is absolutely no relationship between the number and type of policies and gender equity in the university.”

Just 37% of academic faculty, 25% of academic management such as heads of schools and deans, and just one in five in executive roles such as university presidents, vice-presidents and vice-chancellors are women. But women are in 61% of university administrative and other support roles.

On average, in the academic category, for every female professor there are three male professors. “The overall gender trend in academic tenure is that female academics were significantly under-represented across all academic levels,” the 2019 report said.

Fewer women in executive positions

Compared with the 2013 survey data there was no significant change in total staff numbers of males and females in the responding universities, and no significant change in the number of women in academic, academic management and executive positions.

In fact, the latest survey showed that females in executive positions decreased by 5.2% compared to 2013. While this decline may not be statistically significant given the small number of executive university positions available, “I still think it is an important finding,” said Belov, unveiling the results at the APRU conference.

“It is upsetting. There are minimal changes,” said Joanna Regulska, professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis in the United States and the university’s vice provost and associate chancellor of global affairs. “It was surprising to me that the five years did not make much difference.

“In order to move the needle it requires a much more comprehensive long-term commitment,” she said.

But Regulska also noted that a generalised overview may disguise some progress over the past five years at individual institutions. “There are always fluctuations because different universities have different ways of appointing leadership. But if we begin to drill at the institutional level, I am sure there are changes,” she told University World News.

APWiL members also highlighted progress in Japan, one of the worst-performing among APRU members in 2013. In fact, APWiL was set up at the request of Japanese member universities who were concerned about the lack of career progression for women in Japan.

Compared to, for example, 45% of women in academic positions in Australia, in Japan it is just 20%, according to the 2019 report.

Hideo Ohno, president of Tohoku University, Japan, told the conference that just 14% of researchers at his university were women, “which is not good at all; it is almost unacceptable”.

He said one reason was because STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are not popular with female high school students in Japan.

He said the university was providing financial support to departments that offer faculty positions to women or promote women faculty. And he pointed to more outreach in STEM to high schools and junior high schools in Japan. “Though this is not exclusively for female students, we want to try to change societal, perhaps parental views on science and engineering,” he said.

Differences within universities

Others noted differences even within individual universities, as some departments perform better than others. STEM departments, particularly in engineering, perform worst.

Sabrina Lin, vice-president for institutional advancement at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), said five years ago HKUST’s Business School was 70% female students at undergraduate level and is now 55% female. But in the School of Science it was 70% male and is now just over 50% male at undergraduate level, “moving to a better balance”.

“But our school of engineering has not changed over the past five years in terms of gender mix,” she said, with only 20% of female undergraduates in the school. “For a balance to happen, the growth of female student numbers needs to be faster to make any difference.

“If you have a smaller pool, you have fewer potential candidates to move up from the pool, so the only way you can change that is by improving your pipeline. You need more gender parity at the lower levels before you can even make a dent,” Lin said.

HKUST has a policy of topping up the faculty budget allocation for departments that find qualified female candidates for faculty recruitment. “PhDs had been around 25% female but hiring of new faculty is above 35% for this reason,” Lin said. But she added that “these are junior faculty and could take a few years to become associate professors and more years to become full professor, so you won’t see any dent in the numbers at the top in 10 or 15 years”.

Lin said HKUST has been working with other APRU members such as National Taiwan University, University of Tokyo, National University of Singapore and the University of New South Wales in Australia where deans of engineering want to work jointly on encouraging female mentorship across engineering faculties. “I hope this can be extended more,” said Lin.

Regulska noted that APRU member institutions in the US are also making progress. In areas such as STEM, where a lack of progress of women to senior roles is particularly striking, the US National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE programme pushes for a systemic change to increase participation and advancement of women in STEM and provides funding grants for organisational changes and implementation.

“This is changing institutions in fundamental ways,” said Regulska, who added that a combination of external and internal commitments was important for success.

But she argued that policies on women faculty need constant revisions in the face of change, including in cultural practices, and “that means our strategies have to be different and have to be flexible. The fact that we had something 10 or 15 years ago and it worked, does not mean at all that it’s going to work now.”

She said: “Priorities change, political infusion changes, demographics change, cultural composition of the society changes. So the institutional strategies – some are going to work and some will not work.

“The issue with policies is the implementation, evaluation and monitoring. So you can have policies with no effect,” she said.

Pipeline leaks and bottlenecks

Within the survey responses “there were university presidents who did say [gender policies] did make a very big difference, so either a five-year period has not been enough to make a visible impact, or there could be a number of factors,” Lin said.

APWiL noted that there were clearly bottlenecks for women academics to rise to leadership positions. “We need to put in a lot of effort to create a better pipeline,” Regulska said.

“It may be that the pipeline is longer than we were expecting,” said Belov. She said that in Australia where the pipeline leaks most is at the transition from senior lecturer to associate professor. “We are very much aware that this is the time that women are most likely to be having children. There is a lot of pressure to produce research papers and get research funding and that is the career stage where women aren’t able to recover after taking a break.”

In Japan, for example it is even earlier, during the doctoral research stage. And it may be different in other countries.

Apart from sharing best approaches across the APRU network, APWiL’s informal recommendations included both a top-down approach to promoting women leaders by the existing university leadership, as well as a bottom-up approach of encouraging women at different stages of their careers; more ‘male champions’ of equity as leadership was still in their hands; and developing mentoring, apprenticeships and leadership programmes with opportunities for shadowing at member institutions.