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Women and leadership in academia

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Intrinsic factors: the university setup

Universities throughout the world are adopting a managerialist culture which emphasizes competitiveness and productivity. How does that affect women, and what other systemic factors count against them?

Workplace culture

A recent report described how in the UK a competitive culture has been imported from business (Oxford, 2008): people need to be tough and hard to survive, the smaller departmental structure has disappeared in favour of schools headed by competitive deans. Rosalind Marsh, the first female professor at one of the crop of universities founded in the 1960s as a result of the Robbins report, agrees with this analysis, ruefully citing a former vice chancellor's warning, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen". She describes an atmosphere characterized by the stick rather than the carrot, which is competitive rather than consensual, where small committees predominate and individualism is discouraged, where success is seen as acquisition of large research grants (which incidentally discriminates against the arts and humanities), and where communication is impersonal (mainly web based, in some cases even departmental meetings have been scrapped). In such an environment, few women attain senior positions.

According to Kate White, the fact that most senior managers are men in Australian universities creates a male networking structure which subtly excludes women. "Male hegemony is at the heart of the low representation of women in senior management" she claims, citing Hearn's view (2004, p. 61) that universities remain incredibly hierarchical gendered institutions. "Male dominance of science, engineering and technology has a particularly negative impact on the academic careers of women from the outset as many posts at the top of the academic hierarchy are filled by men from these disciplines."

Maboketa and Mawila (2004) base their research on open-ended, semi-structured interviews with 20 women scholars and administrators at 4 universities, of which 2 are black, 1 white, and 1 a black "technikon", or community college. Many of the black universities are imbued with a patriarchal culture partly as a result of the apartheid era, and partly through particular cultural norms. She describes how one woman quoted a proverb in her language, "If you give an institution to a woman, it will collapse", and how the belief carried over to the workplace where men believed that they had a divine right to rule (despite the fact that women were very often unrewarded "acting heads"). Maboketa (2001) cites the case of a female professor doing a heavy administrative job ("the donkey of the university") and isolated in an atmosphere dominated by men: "The culture here is male. The dress code is not written but it is male. The patterns of communication are male …Women's culture [and] women's way of doing things are put on a scale as inferior". In such an environment, women have to "prove themselves and outperform their male counterparts" (Maboketa and Mawila, 2004, p. 413).

Morley (2006) describes how research undertaken for the Gender Equity in Commonwealth Higher Education Project revealed that women were often under-represented in meetings and those who did attend subject to subtle ploys to reduce their contributions.

The picture is not totally bleak, however: Brandeis College in Boston, Massachusetts has recently recruited a number of women to senior positions, thereby creating a "refreshingly feminine", consultative atmosphere.

Promotion and recruitment criteria

It is the object of equal opportunities programmes to make recruitment as open and transparent as possible, so as to ensure fairness to all. Yet the country with the most transparent recruitment policy is Turkey, despite having less obvious equal opportunities legislation than Australia, the UK, the USA and Europe: the Higher Education Council of Turkey provides strict regulations for recruitment and selection, so everything is very transparent, which benefits women. By contrast Australia does have equal opportunities legislation, but formal guidelines, according to Özkanlı and White (2008) are open to interpretation, and the legislation can be "got around". Furthermore, management consultants often brought in to fill senior appointments tend to select for "cultural fit". All this creates an atmosphere where women can easily be bypassed.

The tendency to want to "fit the job" as closely as possible can also act against women, as the attributes thought necessary often correspond to a preconceived, and male, pattern. The ACE study of college presidents found that because of the increasing complexity of higher education institutions, those selecting leaders tended to look for similar experience of a senior executive role – which discriminates against diversity (Walker, 2007).

South Africa still has a long way to go towards a fair promotion system. At the moment, the promotional models are varied, even at the same institution: in some departments, it goes on the recommendation of the head of department, in others, promotions must be applied for, in others, there is no system at all (Mabokela and Mawila, 2004, p. 411). Younger people are favoured which discriminates against those who have for good reasons taken longer over their career; all-male selection committees put more value on a woman's ability to adapt to a masculine ethos than her academic credentials (Zulu, 2007, pp. 94-95). The double standard also prevails: a PhD was demanded for women, but often overlooked for men (Mabokela, 2001).

Demand for research productivity

There is one promotion criteria which is not vague, however, and that is the demand for research, the "publish or perish" culture, now international. On the face of it, it might not appear unjust to ask that senior managers at universities are serious scholars, however concern for research output favours men. Not only may childbearing and rearing affect productivity, but women often have higher teaching and administrative loads: Özkanlı and White (2008) cite research in one Australian university that women had more teaching, fewer PhD students, and less time for research.

Research productivity is a particularly poignant issue for South African black female academics. They are often overburdened by high teaching loads (full-timers from 8 am to lunch time and part-timers from 5 pm), but lack of time is not their only problem. They are often, nurtured in a culture antipathetic to knowledge for its own sake, simply lacking in basic research skills. Young or inexperienced researchers need careful mentoring, but there are simply not the people willing or available to provide them that sort of backing; the infrastructure may also be lacking, with inadequate libraries, and outdated computers, photocopiers, etc. The research they do may be "grass roots" – rural based, and with a gendered and non-Western perspective, which simply does not cut the ice with the leading journals (Mabokela, 2001; Mabokela and Mawila, 2004).

The requirement for research on top of teaching and administration often leads women to work harder, and longer hours, than men in order to gain promotion. The long hours culture self-evidently discriminates against mothers with young children. And those who focus on teaching excellence are discriminative against – it is seen as "not enough".