By Ismail Badat

06 March 2014 - 17:55

'There are more female undergraduates than men, so where are the female leaders? Photo (c) Harsha K R, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'There are more female undergraduates than men, so where are the female leaders?' Photo  ©

Harsha K R, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Ahead of International Women's Day on 8 March, the British Council's Ismail Badat runs us through the numbers and asks why there aren't more women leaders in higher education in South Asia.

The numbers

The number of women in higher education is now equal to, and in many South Asian countries surpasses, men at undergraduate level. Yet, this has not translated into senior appointments and leaderships positions within higher education institutions themselves. For example, only three per cent of vice-chancellors in India are women (six of the 13 female vice-chancellors are at women-only institutions). The figure for the UK is only 14%. The number of women working in middle and senior management posts tell a similar story. Furthermore, when women do achieve high office, it is usually in the social sciences, humanities and arts, but not the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Is this a matter of institutional bias (perceived or real) or do women exclude themselves from these positions, leaving the way clear for men and perpetuating the imbalance further? Dr Lata Chakravarthy (Director International Business School Bangalore) feels that women themselves are to blame, arguing -- controversially -- that 'they are often not ready to take on the responsibility’.

Women-only universities

Private higher education has expanded at a rapid pace in response to huge demand and decreasing investment by the state. Women-only universities have been established in a number of South Asian countries as beacons for those learners previously denied opportunities. Examples include Fatima Jinnah Women University (Pakistan) and Asian University for Women (Bangladesh). Although they are attracting dynamic and ambitious leaders into the profession, these institutions are few in number (two in Bangladesh, ten in India, seven in Pakistan). Does bureaucracy, politicisation and state interference put women off from working in more ‘traditional’ and state-run universities? Is the state sector lagging behind its private counterparts?

Higher education lags behind the private sector

There is also a growing gender disparity when it comes to positions of leadership and influence in higher education contrasted with industry counterparts. While women are beginning to ‘break the glass ceiling’ in all sectors of industry (women occupy 5 per cent and 15 per cent of board level positions in India and UK FTSE 100 companies respectively), those positions in higher education are still seen as the preserve of men.

Are the career options there?

Most academics and managers end up in senior positions more by ‘accident’ than by conscious and deliberate career choice. Studies suggest that more could be done to nurture tomorrow’s talent pool, but especially that of women, by structured professional development, expert mentoring and succession-planning, to make leadership positions more appealing. Bringing transparency into the recruitment and selection processes for senior appointments would also be a positive step.

Creating a fair environment

In the UK, more women than ever are enrolling in higher education, to the extent that the chief executive of UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK) remarked that it is men who are now the under-represented group. Despite this, there is just one female vice-chancellor at the elite Russell Group of 24 research-intensive universities. Although India has recently passed a bill mandating at least one female at board level for public companies, there is no corresponding legislation for universities.

It is clear that it will require both sexes to work together to make progress on this issue. We need policies and interventions, as well as cultural, attitudinal and structural changes to ensure equal opportunities and a more representative leadership in the sector and in society as a whole. South Asia is experiencing a large sector expansion, with plans to build 800 universities over the next decade. It needs to change urgently if it is to avoid perpetuating the present inequalities throughout the next generation of leaders.

This post comes before our global education dialogue on women in higher education leadership, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 17-18 March.

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