Photo Courtesy of mariashriver.com, blog of Tabby Biddle
In my Foundations in Higher Education class this week, we were asked to choose an article to critique and summarize. I chose a piece from Educational Management Administration & Leadership in which an online survey was conducted of twenty-six women among eight New Zealand universities in an effort to answer “What helps or hinders women to advance in university leadership roles, as reported by women?” (Airini et al., 2011, p.48).
The motivation for this research question is that “gender imbalance among senior university academics is an acknowledged problem in many countries, [and] women represent only 16.9 percent of professors and associate professors in New Zealand.” Moreover, even when women do assume roles of leadership, they are put in a more precarious situation than men, and are more likely to be under close scrutiny. Just as there have been more female athletes since Title IX but fewer female coaches, “female student enrollment figures are increasing…but this is not reflected yet in a proportionate rise in female senior academics” (Airini et al., 2011, p.44-45).
Three main types of factors help or hinder the development of an academic woman’s leadership potential: 1) personal, 2) professional, and 3) organizational factors. In regards to personal factors, “women may consider responsibilities, such as raising a family, and their physical and mental health to take priority over climbing the corporate ladder,” or on the other hand, they may sacrifice this lifestyle and forgo having children in order to succeed in their career. From a professional perspective, women have a perceived notion to be tougher and to have competence in selling themselves. Lastly, universities have shifted “away from the modernist university,” one of intellectual traditions, academic freedom, and backed by government investment, to a “corporate post-modern university,” one of strategic focus, client service, and lower levels of government funding (Airini et al., 2011, p.46). If this is the case, then one can’t help but compare the gender of current CEOs and executives of corporations to senior academics at universities and wonder if the latter will follow the same trend as the former in hiring mostly males.
Surprisingly, the results of the online survey revealed that women experience more “helpful” incidents than “non-helpful” (Airini et al., 2011, p.49). Therefore, even though facts may show that fewer women assume leadership roles in academia, it may not be because they are being hindered by external factors. Surveyed women discussed positive working relationships they have with those more senior (which led to bigger projects, increased confidence, and greater recognition); opportunities to attend conferences for professional development; and a family connection that actually produced a new client. Perhaps the most interesting positive finding was that one woman did not take on a managerial role since it would take time away from her research (which could also explain why fewer women are seen in those positions).
However, there were some findings that explain possible hindrance to women advancing in academia, including negative working relationships that involved intimidation and challenges to integrity; poor attitudes towards having children and taking maternity leave; stress, illness, bereavement, and low self-esteem. In these circumstances, advancement could be hindered due to restrictions on hours available to work or travel.
The issue of gender imbalance is important to higher education because often when a structure or organization changes, so do its people. As discussed above, if universities are becoming increasingly more like corporations, then the leaders of universities might be more like Chief Executive Officers. The article states that “recently, there has been an increase in emphasis on vision-building, strategic planning, financial management, accountability, and building leadership teams.” This statement exudes the same message as that of a mission statement of a Fortune 100 company. The question is, therefore, are women having a harder time adapting to this “corporate post-modern university” model, or does the new model require a different type of leader that academics – both men and women – aren’t yet prepared for?
Airini, Collings, S., Conner, L., McPherson, K., Midson, B., & Wilson, C. (2011). Learning to be leaders in higher education: What helps or hinders women’s advancement as leaders in universities. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(1), 44-62.