Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance

As a guest post on this blog recently explored, and as I’ve also noted previously, the higher education scene is not necessarily one of good practice in relation to gender equality. Women make up an increasingly large proportion of the academic community overall, but are still seriously under-represented in senior positions.

However it is not just employment practices in universities that deserve scrutiny, but also governance. In the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired in 2011-12, we found that women were not well represented on governing bodies, and as a result we made the following recommendation:

‘The panel therefore recommends that each governing body should be required to ensure (over a specified transition period) that at least 40 per cent of the membership is female. Each governing body should also ensure that the membership reflects the principles of equality and diversity more generally, reflecting the diversity of the wider society.’

This was picked up in the Code of Good Governance issued by the Committee of Scottish Chairs in July 2013, which included a wider principle of respect for equality and diversity, and a specific reference to equality goals for the independent membership of governing bodies:

‘The governing body, having due regard to applicable law, shall establish appropriate goals and policies in regard to the balance of its independent members in terms of equality and diversity.’

The chairs have now extended this commitment in a policy statement issued this month, with the following commitment:

‘[The chairs of governing bodies] will aim to achieve, on a timescale which may vary according to the circumstances of each Institution, a minimum of 40 percent of each gender among the independent members of the governing body; and will measure success by the extent to which this has been achieved for the sector by 2018.’

The commitment does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders, though these are encouraged to address the diversity commitment also.

How significant is this as an issue? I am pleased to say that since we assessed Scottish governing bodies in 2011 there has been some improvement. Most university governing bodies now have 30 per cent or more women members. The best in class is the University of Edinburgh, 51 per cent of whose Court members are women. A number of governing bodies (including my own) now have women chairs (of whom there were none previously). Scotland may be fact be out-performing other systems in these islands. A significant number of English universities score below 25 per cent, and most of the better performers are in the 30-35 per cent range. The same is true of Ireland, with Trinity College Dublin however managing 41 per cent (in what is largely an internal membership). The National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG), which recently has been in the spotlight for gender equality reasons, has a governing body 36 per cent of whose members are women.

Of course gender (and indeed diversity more generally) is not the only criterion to apply, but it is important, if we want to say with any credibility that universities are representative of the wider population and its aspirations, that governing bodies reflect this understanding. There is still some way to go, but there has been progress.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the criticism that the university establishments have tended to direct at my governance review, it is gratifying to see that we have had a perceptible impact.

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3 Comments on “Gender in higher education: the contribution of governance”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I think a review is a snapshot in time a bit like an audit and provides data and more importantly conclusions from that data for that time. It isn’t necessarily the conclusions it would arrive to at a later date. That being said, and given the pace of change it’s hard to see much being all that different.
    I tend to see an equality problem rather than a feminist one when I see semi autonomous public bodies lacking gender balance. However I see it as a vastly bigger problem when such bodies and other bodies like the judiciary being drawn from a very narrow section of society. And this whether they are male or female for to me it matters little if the formation of your thoughts and therefore your conclusions are without diversity.
    There were a ‘few’ movements started in the 20 years either side of 1900 and by far the most important for society was started out of the B&M Match Girl strike. Of course the message was distorted and twisted since, of course it was hijacked and the people conned. But the core issue then is still the core issue today. Society (establishment) engineered a situation with high rents and high prices generally that required two and more people to work to survive. Those are the issues today. We are yet again caught in a seeming chicken and egg circle where prices are high because two people in a family are working and two people in a family are working because prices are high.
    It isn’t a BIG question it’s just packed with ideological horseshite. Leaving Cert and A-Level economic basics nutshells it nicely.
    On the whole though the nearer to 50% -and this either way btw- gender balance we have on all boards. Not just big shot boards like universities, but school boards, credit union, parish council, what-have-ya the better.
    It might be instructive if one reads a few pages from the Tyndale Bible with the KJV and the Douay–Rheims side-by-side. You incrementally end up in a slightly different place with choices he took when translating and having three options for a word in English. You have the same destination but with a very different orientation to the other two.
    It would be very easy to get the same answer from both sides of the channel if both are trained in Oxford.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    As recognized in today’s post the positive commitment by the Committee of Scottish Chairs “does not cover members elected by staff or students or nominated by external stakeholders”, this is a crucial distinction. Such a position is reflected in the recently published Consultation On a Higher Education Governance Bill
    In the Analysis of Written Responses, with regards to Membership of governing bodies, one reads:

    1.27 A prevailing view, amongst universities and individuals in particular, was that additional legislation is not required to embed the principle of equality in establishing the membership of the governing body. The existing Code and the Public Sector Equality Duty were perceived as sufficient in this regard.

    1.28 A recurring comment was that although HEIs can influence equality outcomes to some degree, this is largely restricted to the selection of “lay” members of the governing body, as others are almost all elected by staff and students or are ex officio.

    Emphasis on *restricted*. More at

    For those interested the ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) is launching the Governing bodies, equality and diversity in Scottish HEIs Report at the end of June in Edinburgh.

    It would be unfair not to acknowledge the ‘perceptible impact’ of the Review of Scottish HE (such impact will appear even more remarkable in years to come), however we cannot accept that existing codes are sufficient to *fix* equality & diversity matters in our institutions. Let’s face it, the scale of the problem goes well beyond the borders of the individual nation’s academia. Just recently a new database of faculty salaries from “The Chronicle of Higher Education” has exposed the American academy at a crisis point—both in labor practices and gender inequality
    More courageous correctives to the system, as discussed in my guest post on this topic, are needed.

    Speaking in 2008 Hillary Clinton acknowledged that: “while important progress had been made in gender equality” – citing better school attendance, more women in office and reformed legislation, achieving equality for women “remains the great unfinished business of the 21st century”.
    That is still the case.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    There isn’t enough women in the governance of colleges and universities in much of the developed world, despite the marked increase of females in post-secondary institutions. Clearly, this problem ought to be rectified in a meaningful way in the next few years in the name of fairness.

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