On International Women’s Day, Professor Jenny Higham, Principal of St George’s, University of London shares her thoughts about women in leadership roles at universities.

calendar-icon 8 March 2017

Do you think the situation for women in Higher Education is improving?
"Higher Education is definitely changing as regards women in senior leadership roles. In the last two or three events I have attended inducting new VCs and Principals, men have been in the minority. There are some very talented women coming through into the most senior university leadership roles.

"These appointments suggest the university sector has woken up to the good qualities of leadership and positive characteristics these women possess. Now it’s assumed that women can do it, rather than they can't."

Why do you think this change has come about?

"The shift may have been influenced by people such as Professor Jane Dacre, President of the Royal College of Physicians, who challenged recruitment agencies about how many women they had approached or shortlisted for leadership positions.

"Head hunters were formerly influential in presenting only a stereotypical group of candidates to shortlist, but transparency has led to change. Behavioural change has also been provoked by Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, and her focus on gender inequality at senior levels within clinical academia. She publicly linked NIHR funding with Athena SWAN success. She put her foot down and did something bold.

"Gender inequality has now moved from being a marginal issue to being a central issue of university managerial focus. Of course much more still needs to be done about overall diversity and attainment within higher education, but I do believe the move accelerated progress."

How important is diversity within higher education leadership?

"The diversity of the people within our community at St George’s is one of our strengths. The university benefits hugely from the range of perspectives that come from the different backgrounds, opinions and beliefs of our staff and students and, in recognising that, we want to put our approach to diversity and inclusion firmly at our core. It is not an optional extra.

"As a leader, I value a team who will bring me different perspectives on any given issue. I know what I think, but I value alternative or different suggestions and this is more likely if the team itself is diverse."

It’s sometimes suggested that women can be more self-effacing than men. Have you ever found that to be the case?

"It is dangerous to make assumptions that all women have the same and consistent characteristics or patterns of behaviour. Both men and women have an individual range of skills and we must use all our human talent to match individuals to what a role requires.

"For example, I chaired a senior national meeting yesterday that has previously only ever been chaired by a man. I want them not to think about my gender at all – just whether I did a decent job. That’s the ideal."