“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.
Women hold just one fifth of senior leadership roles in higher education (@hefce) https://t.co/4H4a24gzaR
— 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.
Great post, Sonal, and your personal story is very relevant. I’m not sure about your Australian statistic (I’ll check it and come back to you) … at my institution the senior exec is gender-balanced but I know that’s not the norm … yet!