Self help for women on the way to the top

Out of 113 university vice-chancellors and principals, only six are women. Maureen O'Connor finds the glass ceiling firmly in place and reports on a group of high flyers determined to break through it
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In other fields women may be dropping out of their high-flying jobs, but in higher education they are making more effort than ever to crash through the glass ceiling. The Association of University Teachers' latest equal opportunities survey, presented at the union's conference last month, shows that representation of women in top academic jobs is still dire.

Even as the number of female undergraduates outstrips the number of males, there are still only six women members of the 113-strong Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals. One is from Keele, but all five others are in the former polytechnic sector.

Twenty out of the 178 institutions surveyed by the AUT still have no women professors and only 8.5 per cent of professors are women. While many institutions have equal opportunities policies, the AUT claims that the vast majority have no published action plan to ensure implementation, and fewer than half routinely monitor their own progress in promoting women, members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

But while institutions drag their heels, senior women have set about raising their own profile. Eighteen women already working in senior positions in universities and colleges have just completed the first part of a high- powered professional development programme called Room at the Top, which could take any of them into the top flight as a vice-chancellor, principal or registrar.

Dr Anne Wright, vice-chancellor of Sunderland and chair of the Committee on University Career Opportunities (CUCO), feels that this initiative, launched in collaboration with the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency (Ucosda), is vital for women. "Getting appointed to top jobs depends on experience and the road may seem obscure and lonely, particularly for women, who are still so much in the minority."

The Room at the Top programme, Dr Wright says, aims unequivocally to get more women into senior jobs. It is open to women already working as deans, pro-vice-chancellors/vice-principals and senior administrators; anyone, in fact, who may realistically expect to move into a top job over the next five years. The programme is a pilot but was so heavily oversubscribed - the 18 participants were selected from 40 applicants - that there will almost certainly be a second.

Dr Wright says: "What we have found is that there are a lot of women out there who are ambitious. They have thought seriously about their future, to the extent that they are willing to commit time and effort to a personal development programme."

The programme will provide every participant with a portfolio that can be used as part of an application for a more senior job. It also offers the opportunity to accredit course work towards an MSc in an appropriate subject such as strategic leadership. It will also, the organisers hope, develop a pool of potential top managers linked by a supportive network.

The content of the course itself is individualised. Each participant has a woman mentor, who turned out to be relatively easy to recruit. Dr Wright says: "Women are keen to share their experiences." A framework is provided over a nine-month period by two meetings at Cambridge and one in Washington, to be run jointly with the American Council on Education's Office of Women. Between meetings, participants will complete assignments and other training and development activities designed to meet their individual needs.

The inspiration for the programme came from the United States where the ACE/National Identification Programme (NIP) Network for Women Leaders in Higher Education has just celebrated 20 years of similar work. Judith Rameley, president of Portland State University in Oregon, is enthusiastic about a programme that has pushed the proportion of women chief executives from 5 per cent in 1975 to 16 per cent in 1995. "I took inspiration and comfort from the opportunity to meet women who already were doing what I hoped to do. I now try to share some of what I have learned with others. NIP has helped me throughout my career both to receive support and to give it."

Dorma Urwin, principal of University College, Worcester, and another prime mover in establishing the programme, has built up a mainly female senior management team. She identifies two particular problems women face when looking for promotion.

The first is the lack of senior role models, something the Room at the Top programme aims to tackle by establishing as strong a network among participants and mentors as now exists for senior women in the US.

The other problem women face in this country, she thinks, is cultural, although she does not go along with the common assumption that all women manage in a fundamentally different way from men. "At the moment many senior women move into an almost completely male environment. This is not necessarily bad. I've had lots of support from male colleagues myself. But when the balance changes you do notice the difference. For instance, over half term I know my female colleagues may need some extra flexibility, whereas some men don't even notice the children are off school."

One of the highlights of the first weekend at Cambridge, according to participants, was the discussion with a firm of headhunters which the recruitment agencies increasingly used to fill top appointments.

Dr Wright says: "I think women still find this a bit daunting. But in fact these consultants are very open to equal opportunities ideas and have a good record on diversity in appointments."

They may be much better, she suggests, than traditional systems of appointment which seem to have had such a dismal record in these areas. "Appointments should be open and transparent. It is improving and becoming more open and competitive. That has certainly not always been true in the past."

Three women who would like to be the boss

Dr HILARY EMERY is dean of education and psychology at University College, Worcester. She says: "I began my career as a primary teacher and was a professional officer at the Schools Examination and Assessment Council (SEAC) before I came to Worcester in 1992 to run teacher education for the later primary years. I am now in my second year as dean.

"At SEAC I had a very demanding male boss who taught me a great deal about policy making and helped me to grow. But going out to local authorities, as I did from SEAC, I often found people were expecting a man. Occasionally you would meet someone quite confrontational and I learned to stand up to that.

"Male preconceptions are still there, although they can be very subtle and sophisticated in academia. I am very interested in organisational cultures, although I don't believe that cultural differences are always based on gender. You do find women managers trying to fit male preconceptions. What is important is how healthy the culture is, how open and comfortable for everyone to work in."

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PROFESSOR CLARE CHILVERS is dean of the graduate school and professor of epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, responsible for 3,500 graduate students. She says: "I am a statistician by training, but I have worked in medical academia, which is very male dominated.

"That was not easy when I first started out. There was an unspoken assumption that, as a woman, one was not very ambitious and would not want to go far. You would find yourself the only woman on committees and have difficulty in making your voice heard.

"The culture has changed a bit since then. But only seven per cent of professors at Nottingham are women, compared to 30 per cent of lecturing staff. I am the only woman dean, so you can still feel a bit isolated.

"That was one reason why I thought the Room at the Top course was such a good idea. It offers women with similar aspirations a strong network which they might not otherwise have. A lot of things are still done on the basis of networking and women have not been very good at that. I am looking forward to the trip to Washington because the Americans have been so effective in increasing women's participation at senior levels."

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PROFESSOR KATHARINE PERERA is pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester and professor of linguistics. She says: "I came here 21 years ago as a lecturer and have been extremely fortunate to have been able to gain promotion within the same university. But I have worked almost entirely in a male environment.

"I was the only woman in the linguistics department for a long time and then the only woman in senior management until a recent appointment of a female director of estates. My male colleagues here have been wonderfully supportive, but I do get the impression that this is not true in all institutions. I applied for the Room at the Top programme because I think you can always learn to do things better.

"In universities you move from an academic job to a management job, and you do not automatically become a good leader. I am married, but we have no children and I do think that makes it very much easier. In senior management the working week expands and that makes it extremely difficult for people with a caring role."

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