Can universities teach business a thing or two about equality?

Can universities teach business a thing or two about equality?

The case for diverse leadership and gender equality, at the highest levels, has begun to focus much more on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’.  

That’s very much the message of the recently launched Hampton-Alexander review into how to create a ‘pipeline’ of women in executive roles, ready to join the Boards of the FTSE350.

They are looking at what works and so, is there experience elsewhere that might be helpful in understanding what can be done to get more women into top jobs?

Universities may have some answers, and not just in theory but through some very relevant practice.

The Times Higher Education (THE) recently reported plans to promote gender balance in top positions in Irish Universities. Gender inequality in Higher Education in the Republic of Ireland has been particularly stark – not one of its seven universities has ever been led by a woman and just 19 per cent of the country’s professors are women.

The report, from an expert working group set up by the Republic of Ireland Higher Education Authority, gained some attention in the UK because of its clear agenda for action, action that urged not only carrots but sticks.

Jack Grove’s piece in the THE summed up the stark message: “Higher education institutions in Ireland should face financial penalties if they do not hit targets on diversity”.

Just as with current discussion about gender equality in the UK, the report focuses less on the case for equality (it’s the right thing to do) or utility (balanced boards work better) and much more on how to achieve it. It also acknowledges that without determined and targeted action very little will be achieved.

As Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, a former European Union commissioner who led the gender equality review said, “Gender balance in top leadership positions will not be achieved in our lifetimes if we just wait for change to naturally occur.”

The sort of action proposed in the Republic of Ireland has been around in the UK for some while and has been tracked by the influential WomenCount reports, authored by Norma Jarboe. And it’s worked.

Between the first ‘WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education’ report of 2013 and the publication of this year’s follow up, real progress has been made.

The number of female chairs of governing bodies has risen from 12 to 19 per cent and vice-chancellors from 17 to 22 per cent. Over all the proportion of women on boards is now nearly 40 per cent.

Some change has been remarkable: in Wales the percentage of gender-balanced governing bodies has increased from 0 to 25 per cent. In 2013 there were no female Chairs of governing bodies in Northern Ireland. Today women make up 20 per cent.

What have been the main elements of this success?

Committed leadership from the very top, underpinned by determined action and transparency have been key. The UK’s funding councils have, as part of their funding agreements with higher education institutions (HEI), agreed outcomes for equality and diversity and they publish their monitoring reports.

The Higher Education Code of Governance emphasises equality and diversity amongst its top priorities for effective leadership and expects HEI to explain publicly how they intend to monitor the impact of equality and diversity policies.

It also sets targets for gender balanced boards (defined as having at least 40 per cent women members and the same proportion of men). This is particularly important as it is the governing bodies that appoint vice-chancellors. 

And it’s not only setting targets and expectations that has been effective. Sanctions have also played their part.

The role played by Charter Marks, such as the Athena SWAN equality awards, has been interesting in driving up attainment against equality goals and in changing recruitment and retention practices. The results have been impressive.

One element of the Irish proposals gained some attention – that of imposing penalties on those HEI that did not achieve the targets.

In England, once Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, linked the attainment of silver-level Athena SWAN status to being short-listed for National Institute for Health Research grants, applications for accreditation have risen substantially. Funny that.


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