Women, higher education and leadership: coming in from the cold

Griffiths, V., Drake, P. and White, S. (2013) Women, higher education and leadership: coming in from the cold. In: European Conference on Educational Research, 10-13 September 2013, Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul,Turkey. (Unpublished)

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This symposium explores the nature of women’s leadership in Europe and beyond, through case studies of women leaders in four universities in Australia and the UK. The authors investigate the nature of work undertaken by women leaders, their leadership styles and relationships with colleagues and senior management. The papers aim to identify key features of the organizational contexts and cultures; and highlight factors which promoted and supported, or hindered and discouraged, women in leadership roles.

Although there has been a rapid expansion in the numbers of women students in universities worldwide, and women now represent a third of all academics, there continue to be low numbers of women in leadership positions (HESA, 2010). Previous studies of women in higher education confirm the continuing under-representation of women in management and leadership roles, within a context characterised by UNESCO’s report on women in higher education (2002) as a ‘chilly climate’ for women academics worldwide.

The international picture is that fewer than 10% of (full) professors are women (HESA, 2010) and a similar position exists for the most senior positions: just below 7% of women lead universities globally (ibid.). A range of contributory socio-cultural factors have been identified (UNESCO, 2002), including: the hierarchical nature of universities, traditionally male leadership styles, lack of female role models, male resistance to change, gendered division of labour and in some cases the persistence of overtly discriminatory practices. A number of other recent studies (e.g. Airini et al., 2011), also emphasise the contradictions and difficulties for women within university contexts increasingly driven by performativity, quality measures, business models and financial targets, characterised as new managerialism, despite women’s greater visibility in senior positions.

Morley introduces the ‘leaderist turn’, stating that, ‘leadership … has replaced management in post-neo-liberal HE change discourse’ (2012: 2). Concepts of leadership idealise personal qualities such as resilience and professional attributes of being able to inspire, generate improvement, or generate new business. Scholarliness largely does not feature in these discourses, nor does reflexivity. Increasingly, in spheres such as, health, social care and teacher education (Smith, 2011), are women who, operating at full stretch, are not only expected to be research active but also to exemplify innovative, evidence-informed and
research-driven practice; and to make such practice look desirable. However, recent European studies (e.g. Ion and Folch, 2009) also report on women leaders’ ability to use flexible and transformative leadership styles to bring about affirmative organizational change.

Within feminist and sociocultural learning frameworks (e.g. Blackmore and Sachs, 2007; Hey, 2011)), we will argue that women leaders tend to be constructed and construct themselves according to the prevailing organizational milieu and ethos of their institution, as well as their personal and professional histories, experiences and characteristics. We analyse the space occupied by both ‘leaderism’ and ‘scholarliness’ from perspectives of being women well-embedded in higher education environments, and from positions of conventional academic success. We present evidence from three dimensions: research leadership; the place of emotion; and development of community relations. The symposium offers exemplifications of the contemporary women-leaderist space.

Drawing on critically reflective, feminist perspectives (e.g. Acker and Armenti, 2004), the studies used a sociocultural framework to analyse different leadership models and examine institutional networks and relationships. The analysis conducted in all three studies views change as a socially contextualised collective approach and practice (Author 1, 2010; Author 2, 2012; Author 3, 2012).

A range of qualitative research methods was used in the studies: all three authors used a case study approach to explore and analyse the experiences of women leaders and identify particular organizational and relational features of the contexts in which they were based.

Narrative, auto/biographical reflection was the main method employed in one study; in-depth, biographical interviews, based on critical incidents (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005), was used in another. The third focused on policy analysis and used actor network theory (Law and Hassard, 1999) to investigate community partnerships, networks and relationships. Themes were identified and coded using grounded theory approaches (Strauss and Corbin, 1998).

Higher education reforms pose particular challenges and opportunities for those in leadership positions, with fresh opportunities for different collaborative strategies. Airini et al. (2011) highlight three interlocking domains which affect women’s leadership: personal, professional and organisational; these are strikingly evident in the three studies presented in the symposium. The major themes identified in these studies also match closely those of European and other international researchers (e.g. Gerdes, 2010; Ion and Folch, 2009): university environment, leadership work, relationships, personal circumstances and proactivity. In addition, leadership styles, characterised by the skilful way that the women leaders negotiated day to day work alongside the challenges of strategic change, emerge as a major theme, alongside the resilience that they demonstrated in highly demanding circumstances. Paying explicit attention to emotion will add richness of understanding about how women educational leaders become recognised in their institutions, and may assist in developing support structures. There is strong relevance to European and other international higher education contexts, in which these issues are experienced through day to day challenges faced by women leaders.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Other)
Additional Information: This was a conference symposium in the Higher Education network.
Uncontrolled Keywords: Women leaders; higher education; gender; leadership
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
Divisions: pre Nov-2014 > Faculty of Education
Depositing User: Prof Vivienne Griffiths
Date Deposited: 03 Dec 2013 15:16
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2014 12:51
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/12465

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00