School of Business and Economics

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Advice for aspiring leaders in Higher Education: It’s best to be a man

Gender inequalities in the workplace are well-known and much debated (and also much researched). It’s rare, however, to obtain systematic big-scale data on how women in a particular sector of employment experience their work, careers, and opportunities to exercise leadership. This is what a research team at Loughborough is doing, and we have found considerable evidence that the higher education sector is failing to support women on their path to leadership roles and responsibilities.

Commissioned and funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the ‘Onwards and Upwards?’ project is a five-year study tracking the careers, experiences and aspirations of women working in academic and professional services jobs in higher education. Our report on the first year of the project can be found at the link above.

In year one of the project we collected data from over 1,500 women working in academic and professional roles in higher education in the UK and Republic of Ireland. These included 1,270 participants in Aurora (the Leadership Foundation’s development programme for women), and 306 “comparison” women who had not undertaken Aurora. They all completed an online survey. Ten Aurora participants and four mentors were interviewed. In subsequent years of the study, many of the same women will be followed up to see how their experiences and views may have changed, and many more women will be recruited to the project.

Our findings show women in the sector have serious concerns about their place in the workforce. Nearly three quarters (72%) of the respondents believe men have a better chance of attaining leadership roles, with just 35% believing women have equal opportunities in promotion, and that women and men leaders receive equal respect. This is not a result of a lack of confidence, with 81% of women agreeing they felt confident putting themselves forward for positions of responsibility at work.

A very high proportion (86%) of respondents indicate that their job requires them to influence others over whom they have no power or authority. Two thirds agree that leadership is a major part of their job description, nearly as many say they seek out leadership opportunities, and almost three-quarters say that they engage in leadership above and beyond the job description. This point was also strongly emphasised in interviews.

The participants in our research generally perceive themselves as having the social and cognitive skills required for leadership. Of course, self-ratings of skills are prone to a generosity bias. On the other hand, women tend to rate themselves lower than men do on most skills, so the high scores here are significant.

Whether women get a chance to exercise these leadership skills, let alone be recognised and rewarded for them, is doubtful to say the least. We have already seen that women perceive that organisational systems tend to work against them. Also, many report having only moderate knowledge of how their employing organisation runs (56% somewhat or strongly agree), and that it is necessary to behave in ways that don’t come naturally in order to “get on” (59%). Less than one third say they make a point of challenging the organisational culture. Also, only one in five agree that they enjoy the “cut and thrust” of organisational politics.

Despite a clear desire from women to progress, we found that just over two thirds of respondents had applied for a job move unsuccessfully at least once, and nearly one in five had done so four times or more. Specifically regarding unsuccessful promotion applications, nearly half have experienced at least one, and more than 11% have tried and failed at least four times.

There is clear evidence that the home sphere is “subsidising” the work sphere for these women. Over 70% of women report that the time and energy required by work detracts from their non-work lives, but only a quarter or fewer indicate that non-work commitments intrude on work. Perceptions of the availability of flexible and family-friendly working tend to the positive but nearly half the respondents say they believe that using them is taken as a sign that you are not serious about your career.

In many respects women in academic jobs reported more negative views than women in professional services jobs. It’s not yet clear whether this is because things are genuinely worse for the academics, or because academics are trained to be sceptical and critical and more engaged with their discipline than with their university.

The interviews with women in higher education revealed personal stories of the issues they face. Some quotes from these interviews include:

“I have been quite shocked at some of the decision making practices and sexism within my institution and am keen to challenge them. I am also keen to do well at work and sometimes find myself conflicted between protecting my job and challenging bad practice.”

“There’s a lot of misogyny here. One of the supervisors was heard to say that there were too many women here now. So it’s an on-going battle”

My Loughborough colleague and co-researcher Dr Sarah Barnard sums it up like this: “It’s clear that many academic and professional women in higher education feel willing and able to take on leadership roles, but they perceive that university management practices and structures frequently hold them back. There is also a danger that their goodwill will be exploited by being placed in ‘glass cliff’ situations where success is extremely hard to achieve, and by their own lack of confidence in seeking material rewards in return for their efforts.”

The project team is grateful to the study participants for contributing to this work. We look forward to continuing to investigate the experiences of academic and professional services women in the sector as the project progresses.

If this work interests you, we would love to be in touch. Please contact us at

This Blog post was written by Professor John Arnold, member of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour discipline group and of the Centre for Professional Work and Society. John can be contacted at