Background to the topic
The number of women entering higher education has increased significantly over the last ten years, as have the numbers of women working in higher education and gaining promotion. However, women are still under-represented in senior management positions and among the professoriate. It is important to study women who have already succeeded in obtaining senior university positions and to identify the leadership skills and qualities that they bring to such roles.
Research questions/focus of the enquiry
The study explored women leaders 19 perspectives of their day to day experiences in higher education, longer term strategies and goals, relationships with colleagues and leadership styles. Factors affecting their role, such as prior management experience, training, support from departmental colleagues and senior university managers, were also investigated.
Research methods and/or mapping of the literature
Research findings confirm the continuing under-representation of women in management and leadership positions in higher education and their marginalisation in structural and cultural ways. An interpretive, case study approach was used in order to elicit the perspectives of 12 women on their leadership roles, using in-depth interviews. The study was carried out in two higher education institutions in England: a pre-1992 university and a new university. The sample of women leaders, six in each university, consisted of heads of departments and deans from arts, social science and business departments.
The study is situated within a feminist theoretical framework. Feminist research (e.g. Morley & Walsh, 1996) has highlighted the under-representation of women in higher education leadership, the cultural clashes and contradictory positioning of women, as well as the transformative potential of women leaders. The framework will foreground social and cultural dimensions of the study, and highlight barriers and opportunities for women leaders.
Research findings and/or contribution to knowledge
Some major themes emerged from the analysis of findings: the importance of prior experience and training; nature of the work and management styles; relationships with colleagues and senior managers. Gender issues, such as the tension between authority and caring aspects of the role, are identified. The complexity of the work, rewards and challenges, the difficulties faced by women leaders on a day to day basis, as well as the strengths and many positive attributes that women can bring to leadership roles, are all highlighted.
Blackmore,J. & Sachs,J. (2001) Women leaders in the restructured university. In A.Brooks & A.Mackinnon (Eds.) Gender and the restructured university. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
Morley,L. & Walsh,V. (Eds.) (1996) Breaking boundaries: Women in higher education. London: Taylor & Francis.
Wisker, G. 1996. Empowering women in higher education. London: Kogan Page.