“Perhaps the scales are tipping”: women in UK HE senior leadership – a personal perspective
“I firmly believe that if I had stayed in India, I would not have achieved what I have managed to here in the UK”
Sonal Minocha, pro-vice chancellor for global engagement at Bournemouth University, writes about her experience of being a woman in a senior leadership position, and how her experience might be different if she’d stayed in India.
— Phil Baty (@Phil_Baty) April 12, 2016
This tweet, the data it highlights, and the very persuasively presented blog, together made me think – perhaps consciously for the first time – of how privileged I am to be a product of UK Higher Education. My career, both as a student and a staff member, has thankfully defied the allegations and statistics that this article summarises.
So let me give you my personal context – I am Indian by origin – born and brought up in Delhi, and my first time away from India was as an international student to Newcastle in 2001. I am (or at least was then) very much a migrant, a foreigner, an ethnic minority!
I am also, of course, a woman! And according to this article I am part of the 31% of women that are part of the top tier of the academic structure in the UK. In India, only 3% of vice-chancellors are women, with six of the 13 female Vice-Chancellors found at women-only institutions.
But let’s get to what I think is the most controversial of the equality and diversity boxes that I tick – my age! I am of a generation that by some might be considered ‘too young’ to be Pro Vice-Chancellor in this country but I’m considered ‘too old’ to be arranged off in marriage in my culture (see this BBC article for a fantastic take on the process as an aside!!). The question I therefore ask is: are you ever the right age to be a senior female academic manager in HE?
So how come then with all these apparent ‘drawbacks’, I am still writing this as Pro Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) at Bournemouth University, working for a male Vice-Chancellor, in an otherwise all male executive, and to a female Chair of the Board?
“India may well be one of the most developing countries in the world but it ain’t ready for my kind of #GlobalTalent just yet”
For me, it is because of the experiences I have gained since 2001, across five UK universities with five different Vice-Chancellors – all male by the way – but also with a variety of line managers, both male and female, who gave me the opportunity, experiences, skills, and belief to progress from lecturer, and all the stages in-between, to where I am today.
I firmly believe that if I had stayed in India, I would not have achieved what I have managed to here in the UK – India may well be one of the most developing countries in the world but it ain’t ready for my kind of #GlobalTalent just yet! In contrast, the UK welcomed me, embraced, encouraged, and enabled me to advance to the kind of career and position that I have today.
Whilst my story may not be as ‘typical’ as it should be, my story would not have existed if not for UK HE and its senior guardians. I therefore want to take this opportunity to celebrate and congratulate UK HE for embodying diversity and difference much more than many other HE systems do.
From a quick Google search, I found that in the US women make up only 27% of presidencies across all HE institutions and similarly, women’s participation in senior and decision-making positions in Australian universities is also relatively low, with only 4.9% of women making it to professorial and senior leadership roles.
So let’s give UK HE some credit for what it dares to do – even though I agree that we must do more, and I know we will. The stats within my own team point to this with 8 out of 11 members of my team being female, including the most senior member, and indeed our wider University Leadership Team too is a 50-50 split. So, perhaps the scales are tipping!
“So let’s give UK HE some credit for what it dares to do – even though I agree that we must do more, and I know we will”
From my own experience, then, I wonder whether the picture is quite as bleak as the statistics might suggest. For example, let me highlight some of the recent contradictions to this apparent trend:
- The appointment of Debra Humphris as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Brighton in December 2015 and the May 2015 announcement that Kathryn Mitchell is to succeed John Coyne as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby.
- University of London has appointed in June 2015 Valerie Amos as its next director. Valerie is also the first black woman to lead a university in the UK.
- In May 2015, Louise Richardson was nominated as the next Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, the first woman Vice-Chancellor in Oxford’s 800-year history.
In terms of what I think collectively we ought to do to continue to encourage the kind of story I’ve been fortunate to experience, we must:
- Establish more talent development programmes to identify and nurture female talent.
- Provide more opportunities for global secondments to enrich and broaden horizons.
- Share and connect more stories of confidence, success and attainment of senior academic managers of all backgrounds and preferences. We need more role models.
I acknowledge that this is quite a ‘personal’ take on an important issue for global HE – but I hope that by doing so, I can encourage anyone who perhaps has a ‘non-traditional’ profile to start, or indeed, elevate, your own HE story with us here in the UK.