27 September 2023

Learning to lead: How universities can help women into leadership

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Sharuna Segaren* says there are many things universities can do to empower more female graduates to become leaders.

Statistics show that women still lag far behind men in leadership roles worldwide.

According to Catalyst, the proportion of women in senior roles is increasing incrementally — 29 per cent of senior management roles were held by women in 2019 — the highest number ever recorded.

However, this proportion of women in senior leadership differs by roles.

Women make up 43 per cent of human resources directors, but only 17 per cent of sales directors and 16 per cent of chief information officers are female.

This goes to show that there is much more to be done to empower women in leadership roles across industries.

Even though the higher education sector is among those industries that are still struggling to bridge the gender gap, universities can serve as the ideal platform for encouraging women to become leaders.

Bringing the issue to light

Despite the vast gender pay gap and underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, many students are still unaware that these problems exist.

This is worrisome because both women and men may graduate believing that a leadership team dominated by only one gender is the norm.

Writing in The Conversation, Lecturer in Management Learning and Leadership at Lancaster University, Valerie Stead said bringing gender into the classroom can influence the next generation and foster equality through education.

Gender studies should be integrated into all schools — not just the humanities — so that students can challenge the status quo, and female students can be empowered to think of themselves as leaders in the future.

Male students also benefit from becoming aware of the situation and learning about how diversity is important in leadership teams.

Supportive groups

Universities can foster a culture of support by ensuring there are clubs, associations and programs in departments for students to develop skills and network with female professionals.

They can also hold talks and workshops that bring in female guest speakers who can empower women to work towards becoming leaders in the future.

For example, the Academic Women in Leadership (AWiL) Program at the University of New South Wales aims to “build a visible cohort of high potential, talented academic women to lead with confidence and competence” by providing workshops, seminars and mentoring.

At Cornell University, the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine is a one-year program of “leadership training with extensive coaching, networking and mentoring opportunities aimed at expanding the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership in academic medicine, dentistry and public health”.

According to the website, the program is dedicated to “developing the professional and personal skills required to lead and manage in today’s complex healthcare environment, with special attention to the unique challenges facing women in leadership positions”.

Associations like these help students navigate the challenges they might face in their industries when it comes to achieving leadership positions and can play a vital role in helping them develop and hone leadership skills.

Connecting female students to mentors

Mentorship can play a big role in shaping a young person’s future.

Universities can connect female students with mentors who hold senior or leadership positions — whether in the university or their chosen industry — so that they can shadow and learn from them.

Their mentor doesn’t have to be a female, as female students can still learn leadership skills from male leaders.

Opportunities like these allow female students to develop skills that position them as managers and leaders in their respective fields.

Leading by example

Universities also need to address the fact that there are too few women leaders in academia, although the numbers are rising.

They can lead by example by appointing more female leaders in senior roles, which helps inspire the next generation.

Gary A. Berg, author of The Rise of Women in Higher Education: How, Why and What’s Next, told Inside Higher Ed: “Women faculty tend to be disproportionately employed in community colleges and less prestigious four-year institutions, and are paid approximately 80 per cent of what men receive (a figure that is remarkably constant internationally).”

“While there are more females in university leadership than in the past, the percentage is still lower, especially at research institutions.”

He also wrote that some universities fall behind others in offering leadership and senior roles to women.

“In some cases, the traditions at universities surrounding doctoral programs, tenure and promotion work against encouraging rapid change in leadership gender, especially at research universities,” Berg said.

“In addition to creating an open pipeline to top positions, institutions need to more actively encourage and develop women leaders.”

* Sharuna Segaren is Senior Education Journalist at Study International. She tweets at @sharuna87.

This article first appeared at www.studyinternational.com/news.

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