Women’s Leadership in Universities in the Australia and Hong Kong, SAR

Elise Stephenson being awarded a New Colombo Plan Scholarship by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and the Governor-General Peter Cosgrove.
Article byElise Stephenson

An equitable number of women and men leaders in our society is crucial to be able to fully capitalise on future growth, to be able to innovate and advance, and to lead our society in a just and representative way. We can look for women leaders in our governments, in our businesses, and in our prized institutions in society, and in some places, we find them. But for the most part where we find them, we find only a few. We know of many reasons why there were not women leaders in many institutions in the past, but where are they today? As key educators and arguably one of the most critical institutions of society, universities are uniquely placed to be exemplars of gender equity and the promotion of women in leadership. So where are our women leaders in universities? And what are the circumstances of those few who do make it past the glass ceiling to the ivory tower?

Australia is placed squarely in the Asia Pacific region, interacting within the Asian century, and integrating closely with its neighbouring Asian higher education institutions. The Asia Pacific region is home to the fastest growing higher education sector in the world and with this major growth should be the commensurate advancement of women leaders in university institutions and society as a whole. But across Asia and Australia we find a similar story — that although women are increasingly enrolling in higher education in greater numbers than men, in terms of leadership, there is still a significant disparity. Women in Australia hold just under one quarter of vice chancellor roles, approximately 30% of deputy vice chancellors and pro vice chancellors roles, and comprise on average under 20% of the professoriate. In comparison, women in Hong Kong currently hold no vice chancellor positions, comprise only 7.3% of positions of dean and above, and hold only 18.7% of associate and assistant deans and heads of departments. We should have seen a generational shift in terms of leadership, with decades of more women enrolling in higher education than men and awareness of gender equity at the forefront, so why haven’t we? And is there more we can actively do to support a diverse and sustainable leadership?

Although equity policies may be in place and universities have increasingly sought to create an inclusive organisational environment, women still face significant covert challenges, and as a result, current efforts to redress the balance are not necessarily correlating to an equitable number of women in senior leadership. In our constantly changing and necessarily evolving region and higher education sector, focus is still needed on this area of gender equity and the positive measures we can take to ensure individuals and universities alike are getting the most out of available opportunities and future possibilities. The consequences of not doing so could result in under-performance in universities, depressed career opportunities, wasted talent, knowledge distortions, an inability to fully maximise on economic opportunities and innovation, sub-par interaction and engagement in the Asia Pacific, and the reproduction of institutional norms and practices that have far-reaching and long-standing negative implications on wider society.

For these reasons, research into women leaders of universities in Australia and one of Australia’s closest higher education relations, Hong Kong SAR, is currently being undertaken by one of Griffith University’s New Colombo Plan Scholarship awardees, Elise Stephenson. The Australian Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan aims to increase people-to-people and institutional links between Australia and the Indo-Pacific, and Elise will be traveling to Hong Kong from June 2015 to conduct research and intern in this important area of gender equity and higher education. Research will look at why there are so few women leaders of universities in each polity, what the individual experiences have been, including their challenges and opportunities, how these experiences converge or differ, and what learnings can be gained from each different cultural and political context. This honours project is being supervised by Dr Kaye Broadbent and Prof Glenda Strachan (Griffith University) and Dr Sarah Aiston (The University of Hong Kong). It is hoped that research can better inform university policy, culture and opportunities, as well as strengthen this area of research and the efficient utilisations of human resources.

Ultimately, narrowing the gaps between men and women across Australia and Asia has critical implications for the global economy, the structuring of society, and the region’s ability to innovate and advance. Increasing the number of women in leadership in society, therefore, is crucial to leveraging innovation, maximising productivity and achieving gender equity. We need to find where our women leaders in universities are, what made it easier or harder for them to get there and stay there, and what we can do to ensure that the path of future leaders is assured.
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Elise Stephenson
Completing a Bachelor of Government and International Relations with Honours (2015-2016)
Completed a Bachelor of Asian and International Studies / Bachelor of Communications (2014)