Lucienne Tessens, Claire Web and Kate White*. Women's participation in senior and decision-making positions in Australian universities is still low, despite the existence of equal employment opportunity legislation and affirmative action initiatives over the past 25 years, including the growing number of in-house women-only staff development programmes.
The clear evidence of a gender pay gap in universities, combined with the under-representation of senior academic and professional women, suggests continuing systemic and cultural barriers to women's progress within the higher education sector.
Women are still under-represented as academic staff (42.3% in 2009, up from 31.6% in 1994), but they continue to be the majority of general staff (62.9% in 2009, up from 56.8% in 1994). Women comprise only 19.1% of professors.
What are the development needs and support that senior women consider they require to effectively advance their careers?
We looked at two universities. University A is a Group of 8 (Go8) research-intensive university, while University B is a newer dual-sector university. At both universities the representation of senior women has increased significantly over the past 15 years, but women continue to be particularly under-represented as full professors (Level E), especially at the Go8 university.
Women-only programmes are one strategy used by Australian higher education institutions over the last two decades to address gender equity concerns, and are currently experiencing a revival in popularity. At University A a multi-dimensional in-house leadership programme for women was established in 1994 in response to the continuing under-representation of women in academic roles and at senior levels of university decision-making. Its dual focus is developing individual women and changing the organisational culture.
Each year the programme is attended by 30 academic and professional staff women who self-select into the junior or more senior programme. Alternative years are primarily attended by a cohort of women at higher education worker (HEW) levels three to seven and academic levels A to C; the other years are attended by women at HEW Levels seven to 10 and academic Levels C to D. A further programme was established several years ago to cater for the needs of senior women at HEW level nine and above and academic Level C and above. It brings together senior women to foster networks and debate in order to raise the profile of women in higher education.
University B has a leadership programme conducted annually since 2003. It targets women at academic levels B and C, general staff at levels seven to 9, and training and further education [TAFE] at levels senior educator and TAFE teacher four to five. The programme is designed to support and provide skill development for women who aspire to leadership roles and wish to further progress their careers.
We were told that these programmes are not accommodating the needs of the most senior women in the university. Moreover, we and those taking part in the programmes have been asked: 'What about the men?'
There is a perception at universities that we have 'moved on' and that women now enjoy the same opportunities as men. We are discovering that separating staff development activities along gender lines remains a controversial topic despite the clear evidence of the continuing low representation of women in senior positions.
Our results suggested several themes.
The first was the working conditions of and work pressures on the respondents. Excessive workloads were considered the most significant challenge, followed by high levels of administration, and may explain the discrepancy between the number of women who considered that a senior women's programme should be offered by the university and the smaller number who expressed interest in participating in such a programme.
The gendering of careers was a further theme, resonating with other research. Some considered that men received more support in their careers than women. Men were able to focus on their primary leadership role - or for academics focus on their research - while women were expected to take on multiple roles. The critical role of the manager and minimal resourcing were highlighted as issues.
The results clearly indicate that organisational cultures continue to challenge some senior women. They also suggest that the work environment is becoming more demanding and stressful and in turn impacts on whether or not women consider that they have the time - and energy - to undertake leadership development, even though this may be beneficial to career development.
Nevertheless, another strong theme was how universities could support career advancement by: restructuring roles to reflect workloads; creating opportunities and providing encouragement; supporting women through mentoring, shadowing and acting positions; encouraging relationships with the broader academic community; and restructuring the promotion process to remove perceived bias in appointments, provide clear advancement procedures, and ensure accountability.
Respondents identified key strategies for career advancement as peer support, supervisors, and networks which were underpinned by effective organisational skills and administrative support. However, many experienced lack of support that can, as others have observed, lead women to leave their institution. There was clear support for women-only leadership programmes and belief that a senior women's leadership programme was required to provide the knowledge and skills for leadership in the current tough working environment in the sector.
Respondents identified the main content areas for such a programme as: people management skills, political skills, personal skills, operational skills and career development skills such as networking. Interestingly, they did not consider the traditional workshop format used in women's leadership programmes to be an important component, but preferred targeted leadership development opportunities such as mentoring, peer networks, coaching and 360 degree feedback, and opportunities for shadowing and mentoring at another university.
In short, women felt challenged by the impact of excessive workloads and high levels of administration on their effectiveness; they needed peer support, supervisor support, and networks, underpinned by effective organisational skills and administrative support; and they highlighted the gendering of careers, especially academic careers, evident in male colleagues receiving more support, resources and recognition. However, their leadership development needs were quite similar.
Over 80% of respondents considered that a senior women's leadership programme would provide the knowledge and skills for leadership in the current tough working environment in the sector. However, rather than the traditional workshop format used in leadership programmes they wanted different kinds of content that were more focused on areas such as networking.
* Lucienne Tessens and Claire Web are based at the University of Western Australia in Perth, and Kate White is at the University of Ballarat in Ballarat, Australia.
* This is an edited version of the article "Senior Women in Higher Education Institutions: Perceived development needs and support", which appears in the current edition of The Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. The article is republished with permission.