Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The diversity advantage: leadership, women and universities

Jun 2, 2020 | News

Written by Julie Hare

When, in 1990, Professor Fay Gale became vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, it was an important moment in Australian higher education. Following Di Yerbury, who was appointed head of Macquarie University in 1987, Professor Gale was the second woman to lead an Australian university – proof enough that women had arrived and were now vying for the highest roles in academia.

Thirty years later and the picture at UWA is sadly similar. In June, all-male senior executive bar one (acting) female leader – in this case Jane den Hollander. (Update: UWA currently has nine men and two women on its executive).

Professor den Hollander had been persuaded to temporarily put her retirement plans on hold to keep UWA’s chief executive pew warm while the new recruit – Amit Chakma – finalised his term of service at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

It’s unlikely a conscious decision by UWA’s powers that be – more an oversight by a governing council that forgot to include diversity in its institutional planning.

As Sharon Bell, a long-term gender equality advocate, says: “When you are appointing people to the senior executive you need an affirmative action plan because it’s not just about appointing to a single position but what that single position does in relation to the entire profile of the senior executive.

“If you take every individual position as a singular event, then you are likely to end up with something that looks like the status quo.”

030620 Jane den Hollander

Professor Jane den Hollander, acting vice-chancellor at UWA.

When BroadAgenda asked UWA for an explanation, Professor den Hollander noted the “relative lack of diversity recently returned after a time when things were otherwise – reminding us that we can never be complacent”. She also noted there would be two women joining the team in the near future but didn’t say when – bringing female representation to a unimpressive 20%.

(It is worth noting that Professor den Hollander, when vice-chancellor at Deakin, was a vocal and active advocate for gender equality at all levels of her institution.)

New analysis by BroadAgenda reveals that despite aberrations, gender equality at both the governance and senior executive levels in Australian universities are streets ahead of the corporate world.

Our analysis shows that over the period 2010-20, the average proportion of women on governing bodies rose from 38.3% to 43.5% while the proportion on senior executive committees rose from 30% to 38.3%. However, out of a total of 39 universities, the number of female chancellors rose by just one (from nine to 10), while the number of female vice-chancellors increased by five (from six to 11).

So while there is a definite upward trajectory, it is what Professor Bell describes as, well, “glacial”.

If you look at the percentage change per annum; it’s glacial. I wonder am I going to be dead before I see equality in this space.

“If you look at the percentage change per annum; it’s glacial. I wonder am I going to be dead before I see equality in this space,” says Professor Bell, who is currently dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University.

Data collected by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency confirms that the higher education sector is feminised – except at the highest levels. Indeed, 57% of employees are women while 54% of students are female – a figure that has remained surprisingly stable since the late 1980s.

Our analysis reveals that 15 universities have never had a female vice-chancellor and five universities have never had either a female VC or chancellor (the equivalent to the CEO and chair of the board). For the record, those five are: Australian Catholic University; the University of NSW; Southern Cross University, University of the Sunshine Coast and University of Tasmania (USC has appointed Helen Bartlett who starts in August).

Our analysis reveals that 15 universities have never had a female vice-chancellor and five universities have never had either a female VC or chancellor.

In 2020, nine universities had 50% or higher female representation in its senior executive but 13 had less than 33%.

Put this in comparison to the corporate sector, and we can see how well – relatively speaking – the higher education sector is doing. Data from Chief Executive Women, show that in 2019, just 12 of the ASX200 listed companies had a female CEO (6%). Women made up just 25% of total executive positions while there were still 17 companies (down from 23 in 2018) with no women in the senior team.

In terms of corporate governance, according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the percentage of women on ASX200 corporate boards finally has broached the key 30% mark, reaching 30.7% last December. Amazingly, four boards in the ASX200 still do not have any women.

The last fact is perhaps the one that is most bewildering. There is extensive research that confirms companies with diverse boards and senior teams are far more successful – culturally and financially – than those that don’t.

Indeed a massive study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the accounting firm EY in 2016 looked at nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries and found a strong correlation between the number of women in executive positions and a company’s profitability.

Despite this, the study – mirroring the ASX statistics – also found a dearth of women in corporate leadership positions. Less than 5 percent of the 22,000 companies had a female boss.

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Graduation procession in Melbourne.

This raises a question: if university councils have more female representation than corporate boards, is there a fundamental and qualitative difference in how the two operate?

No, says Jillian Broadbent, who has served as chancellor of the University of Wollongong for a decade, as well as in governance positions on numerous high profile organisations, including the Reserve Bank, Woolworths and Woodside Petroleum.

“The calibre of people is essentially the same. But their objectives are fundamentally different – university boards have a social purpose that corporations recognise as part of the package but it’s not as dominant,” Ms Broadbent says.

“Universities are not-for-profits but they try to structure themselves financially to endure and generate an income so they can direct it to the right places, meet a market need, support research and so on. There are a lot of reasons why universities want to be economically sound, but it does have a social overlay.”

Ms Broadbent says that Wollongong University’s strong female representation on its council – it currently has 53% female membership – has been “conscious”.

We have an ambition across the university to create an environment where talent and merit can be shown

“We have an ambition across the university to create an environment where talent and merit can be shown,” she says.

Libby Lyons, chief executive of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, argues that universities should be doing better than other industry sectors – if only because they are centres of data and research and should practice what they preach.

And while she wouldn’t go so far as to call the rate of change “glacial”, Ms Lyons says progress is still too slow.

“If we look at women in manager roles, in the higher education sector the figure has risen by nearly 4 percentage points over five years and its nearly at parity 48.3%.”

However, she notes, at the most senior levels, the representation of women falls away.

“Eleven out of 39 vice-chancellors is pathetic, really,” Ms Lyons says.

At deputy vice-chancellor level – or what Professor Bell calls the pipeline – there are some interesting signs.

According data available on the Universities Australia website, at last count, 20 of 39 DVC (academic) were women. However, this position – which oversees the teaching and student arm of a university – does not traditionally segue into a vice-chancellor position. Those candidates more usually come from the pack of DVC (research) which historically has been male (and hard sciences) dominated. Interestingly, 15 of the 39 DVC (Rs) listed on the UA are women – the highest number ever.

Women are much less represented at both DVC (international) and DVC (corporate) – both roles with specific and largely commercial oversight.

“Very few people are ‘designing’ the make-up of the senior executive team and that impacts on the pipeline because future leaders are drawn from senior executive positions,” Professor Bell says, who has held deputy vice-chancellor positions at three universities.

030620 UNSW

UNSW has never had a female chancellor or vice-chancellor.

Ms Lyons argues at this strange juncture in history – the era of COVID-19 – might be the right time to reconsider exactly who and what become leaders in universities and that diversity comes in many shapes and sizes.

“If we insist that a VC has to be a professor we are never going to get the diversity you need in those roles – the new thinking, the different experience. Imagine bringing in a vice-chancellor who came from a resources, construction or finance background – the different thinking would be extraordinary,” Ms Lyons says.

Maybe now is the time to really shake things up; that new perspectives and creative ideas are needed

“So maybe now is the time to really shake things up; that new perspectives and creative ideas are needed and you aren’t necessarily going to get them from a professor who has spent their entire career in the university system.”

Ultimately though, there are hurdles and obstacles that seem to be only for women. While women outnumber men as the proportion of total academic staff, by the time they have risen to associate professor and full professor, guess what? There are double the number of men to women. And therein lies a problem.

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