THE BLOG

Women in Higher Education: Four Ways to Build a Culture of Strong, Bright Female Leaders

07/07/2015 09:17 BST | Updated 03/07/2016 10:59 BST

The appointment in May of Oxford University's first female VC in its 800 year history has inevitably bought the debate around female leadership to the headlines once again.

When it comes to academic life, there is certainly no shortage of female talent - according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, women make up 44 per cent of academics and 38 per cent of academic managers, directors and senior officers. So why are the numbers still dropping off so quickly when it comes to vice-chancellors and pro-vice chancellors?

How can universities create a culture of strong, bright women at the top tier of university management? This was a question I faced when I took over as VC at Bath Spa University in 2012, and as one of just a handful of female VCs in the country, it's a subject I feel qualified to comment on.

It's slightly patronising to talk about childcare facilities or flexible working purely in relation to women - surely this should be available to men and women alike in today's working environment? However from my experience there are some actions universities can take to foster an environment where women can reach their full potential. Here are four ideas:

1. Hire more women: simple, but effective. When I arrived at Bath Spa University there was just one female professor. I appointed 20 new professors, of whom 10 were women. This addressed a gender imbalance, provided role models for more junior members of staff and a fresh outlook on University management matters.

2. Focus on results, not gender: yes we need more women in senior positions, but were I Oxford University's Professor Louise Richardson I would perhaps be frustrated that so much of the media coverage around my appointment related to my gender, rather than my academic credentials and plans for the job. If gender comes before success every time, we risk widening the gap further.

3. Look to history for inspiration: strong female leaders are nothing new, particularly at Bath Spa University. From one of our staff rooms a portrait of the University's founder, Dilly Dawson looks out as a permanent reminder of this. In 1948 Miss Dawson single-handedly set up what was then a female teacher training college, bargaining hard for rents and building materials in post-war Britain. The legacy of people like Miss Dawson should be celebrated.

4. Look outside of academia: the question of women in leadership spans more than the academic world and we should look outside of this for role models, mentors and ideas to encourage more senior women. The job descriptions may vary, but many of the issues are the same.

Of course diversity in academia is about more than just the gender divide - the same argument could be had for race, class, physical ability and a host of other so-called 'minorities'. Across the board though, there is more that universities can do to create an environment where senior women can excel.