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Travelling towards a mirage? Gender, leadership and higher education

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Product Description

By Tanya Fitzgerald, Jane Wilkinson

Published: 2010
ISBN: 978-1-921214-68-4
Pages: 174
Imprint: Post Pressed


There can be little doubt that universities benefit from diversity in their student and staff population. Yet why do women remain under-represented in senior academic leadership roles and in key positions along the academic career ladder? Why do women not advance at a rate proportional to that of their male peers? How do institutional policy and policy discourses influence decisions in regard to who occupies senior roles?

In this book the authors use the metaphor of a mirage to map the current climate in higher education and examine whether equity and equality policies and practices have had an impact on the participation of women as leaders and managers in higher education.

This book will be of interest to those working in the fields of educational leadership, gender studies, and higher education as researchers, teachers, postgraduate students and practitioners. The authors offer a comparative approach to examining and understanding how gender and leadership are played out in various institutions of higher education across Australia and New Zealand.

Table of Contents

Chapter One - Introducing the terrain

Chapter Two- Mapping the terrain: Gender, leadership and higher education

Chapter Three - Reading signs: Gender and leadership

Chapter Four - Charting the territory

Chapter Five - Reading against the grain

Chapter Six - Present and absent? Theorising participation




Intellectual work can at times be a solitary experience. In writing a book together we have experienced the support, advice and guidance from a number of organisations and colleagues. In the first instance we would like to thank the Royal Society of New Zealand for their funding support. We also extend our thanks to our universities, La Trobe (Victoria) and Charles Sturt (NSW) and in particular the Faculty of Education in each location. More specifically the Faculty of Education at Charles Sturt University provided Jane with considerable funding and time release. We have been fortunate to receive research assistance from Amy MacDonald, Kate Johnstone, Robert Trevethan in Australia and Celine Ho in New Zealand and administrative support from Janelle Turner. Furthermore, we thank the universities across Australia and New Zealand for their response to emails and questionnaires. We would like to record our sincere thanks to Jill Blackmore and Julie Jackson for their contributions. Jane would like to thank Peter and Sarah for their patience, good humour and tolerance of her many absences. Tanya would like to acknowledge the unfailing support of Ross.

Chapter One - Introduction

Do we want to join the procession or don't we? On what terms shall we join that procession? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men? (Woolf, 1938).

In late 2007 we asked ourselves a similar question and began a long conversation about our own experiences of the Academy and our observations about the relative absence of women in senior leadership positions in universities across Australia and New Zealand. We both knew a number of women who were Deans, professors, senior administrators, and heads of school and many of these colleagues had been instrumental in nurturing our own careers. Our conversation then drifted to asking whether decades of legislative impulses, and university policies and practices had offered more or less opportunities for women academics or whether successive decades of managerialism had, in effect, masked both the extent of women's participation in universities as well as nature of the academic labour in which they were engaged. Although we were both aware of reports that highlighted that more women than men were enrolling in universities in Australia and New Zealand, and particularly in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and business management, we were mildly discomforted because we recognised that numbers of women as Deans, professors, senior administrators, heads of school and (fulltime and permanent) lecturers were not subject to the same statistical shifts. That is, while numbers of women students and women graduates have increased, the position of women working in higher education has not altered. And while the rhetoric of equity, diversity and widening participation has focused on the student population, institutional policies and practices have not stimulated the same level of access and opportunity for academic women. Thus, one of the first conclusions that began to surface was that despite legislation, affirmative action practices and heightened awareness of the need for a diversified workforce, challenges and negotiations remain for women in higher education (Cotterill, Jackson and Letherby, 2007).

This situation is not particularly unique to Australia and New Zealand. Paula Caplan (1997) for example, in her work on academic women in the US and Canada reveals the existence of an 'academic funnel'. That is, while numbers of women undergraduates have increased, the proportion of women undertaking postgraduate work and progressing to academic careers declines at every stage. Although women's participation in the workforce in Canada has steadily increased, trends indicate that women are predominantly located in the lower rungs of an organisational hierarchy (Agocs, 2002). Similarly, Judith Glazer-Raymo (2008) has pointed out that not only is there an erroneous assumption that the 'gender gap' has diminished in the US but that rather than support mechanisms to increase numbers of women, particularly in senior positions in the Academy, there is an insistent cry for gender legislation and programmes to address the decline in male student enrolments and apparent invisibility of male scholars in some university departments.

In England the situation appears to be bleaker. Despite almost three decades of equal opportunities and anti-discrimination legislation, the 600 year old tradition of the university as the bastion of male scholars has not shifted, at least not markedly. In 1990 for example, as Louise Morley and Val Walsh (1996) have pointed out, women comprised 21% of all academic staff and 10.7% of the senior staff. More recently, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (www.hesa.ac.uk) indicate that in the period 2006-2007 women comprised 36% of the fulltime and 53% of the part time staff in UK universities. In 2006-2007, 17.5% of all professors were women, 42.3% of all academic staff and 62.6% of all non-academic staff. The press release associated with these figures (28 February 2008, press release 118, Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA]) led with the byline 'HESA data shows increase in proportion of women professors'. It was a 0.8% increase in 12 months. In similar ways then to the US, there is an unrelenting suggestion that gender battles have been fought and won and that discourses regarding individual choice offer an explanation as to why these gaps exist (Deem, 2003) and that more serious questions about structures, hegemonic power and social relations remain unanswered.

Statistics from universities across the European Union are a little more difficult to track. Part of the reason for this lies in substantial differences between countries as well as varying ways in which professorial status is determined. Official statistics across the 2002-2003 timeframe do show that women comprised 14% of professors, 32% of associate professors, and 40% of assistant professors (Rees, 2007:10). Despite decades of gender equality reforms and gender mainstreaming projects, universities in the European Union remain grounded in male-dominated systems, structures, and cultures (Sagaria, 2007). It would seem that gender inequality in higher education is a subtle but pervasive global problem.

As feminist academics working in higher education in Australia the questions that we pose and the data that we have surveyed present us with a less than positive outlook. Equally too, we are ourselves positioned by the landscape that we encounter in own daily professional lives. Tanya is a professor and head of school; part of the minority professoriate and also part of the managerial rung in universities. Jane, as a recently promoted senior lecturer is part of the widening group of women located at this level. In many ways then, the policies and data trajectories that we examine in this book are reflected in our own careers to date.



vol. 53, no. 2, 2011, pp 129 -130

Making a case for equity initiatives

Travelling towards a mirage? Gender, leadership and higher education

by Tanya Fitzgerald & Jane Wilkinson

ISBN 9781921214684 Post Pressed, Mt. Gravatt, Australia, 2010

Review by Patricia Kerslake

Adjunct Research Fellow, Learning and Teaching Research Education Centre, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton; Senior Lecturer, CQU Mel­bourne Campus, VIC

Reading this book reminded me of Salman Rushdie's words upon reading Kipling, who had, said Rushdie, 'the power simultaneously to infuriate and to entrance' (Imaginary Homelands, p. 74). Tanya Fitzgerald and Jane Wilkinson offer a feminist reading of the current status of academic women in Australian and New Zealand universities: a view sufficiently grim to require little additional framing or politicising. It is at times the over-egging of the cake that occasionally weakens, rather than enhances, this text, as the authors' case is made perfectly well without necessary recourse to a feminist paradigm, or peripheral references. As a literary work, this text is parched and frequently over-argued. As a denunciation of the increasingly unbalanced equity of women in the academy, in academic research and in higher education management, it is unforgiving and relentless.

The authors make no bones about their stance, and, for the entire 142 pages, return repeatedly to a profoundly pro-equity perspective, while taking the 'enduring myth of equity' (p. 9), and beating it to a bloody pulp. The narrative takes the form of an analo­gous geographical peregrination, with headings such as 'Mapping the Terrain' and 'Charting the Territory', although these headings are more for textual con­venience than genuine indicators of content. Their argument is manifest and confronting. Fitzgerald and Wilkinson have undertaken a methodical review and analysis of the current state of academic staffing and management within Australian and New Zealand uni­versities, and asked some obvious, yet critical ques­tions. It is not their exposé of anomalies in higher education senior appointments that is so provoking, but rather, the fact that their subsequent concerns remain unresolved.

A quick look at the variance between female vs. male staff ratios at higher levels in any antipodean university makes it clear there is a potential problem, but how big a problem? Have women made any progress what­soever into the male-dominated 'bastion' of higher education since the 1970s? That this question is still legitimate today is both suggestive and alarming.

The text's primary argument is that all professions and professional workers are 'deeply gendered' (p. 9), and that the authors wish only to 'provoke the reader to think critically about the gendered nature of the acad­emy' (p. 11). This wish is successful, although the very force of the feminist mandate employed constructing such provocation produces almost an opposing effect: why so vehement? The answer becomes clear as one progresses through the chapters: a sharply defined and barely-capped anger and frustration at continuing gender iniquity is writ large upon each indictment.

It is almost impossible to imagine this text written about the inequity of male rank and status with the academy, and, were it so, one can hear the political landslides from here. If men would find the situation intolerable, then why do women accept it? The text suggests that a view taken through three theoretical lenses may offer some insight: women in educational leadership; education policy analysis, and higher edu­cation itself. Fitzgerald and Wilkinson point to each element of their analysis to show how women in academia have been 'corralled' and 'contained' (p. 20), through the implementation of the new managerialism of tertiary education, where emphasis is focused on the educational marketplace and on 'new regimes of accountability' (p. 26).

But what is wrong with an increased account­ability or more pervasive management of the acad­emy? 'Power,' say the authors, 'has been redistributed upwards and this has produced a division of labour between academics and managers' (p. 27), which, in turn, creates 'relentless sites of exclusion and elitism' (p. 32). A simpler way of seeing the picture created by the authors is to scrutinise new academic values. Any function that affects the bottom-line of the uni­versity, usually connected to the generation of fund­ing or costs, seems to wield more than its fair share of influence and importance. Women academics are more accepted into those positions deemed to require a 'high level of emotional labour ... involving the care (academic or pastoral) of students' (p. 12) and lower levels of management, rather than prestigious research and governance appointments. While vital to the reten­tion of students, such positions do not have access to this influence and power and run almost tangentially to those of their male colleagues.

The text also examines the 'illusion of inclusion' (p. 22) across sixteen top tier universities in Australia and New Zealand, including the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne, across the Tasman to Massey, Waikato and Otago Universities. It is a wealthy and powerful group of academic institutions, all of whom appear pleased with their EEO initiatives. It becomes uncomfortable to read the long list of iniquities: while there has been massive change across all universities over the last thirty years (in terms of student numbers, funding and international ranking), there has been frighteningly little movement in the position of women academ­ics in the same period. Why? Fitzgerald and Wilkin­son appear to have covered all the requisite bases of research: they make no unprovable or outlandish statistical claims. Why then does this gender inequity still exist? Can today's tertiary institutions still pander to the 'men's club' mentality of the 19th century? The answer, unbelievably, may be yes. While women academics are over-represented in areas such as nursing, education, social work and the humanities, they are singularly absent from those senior roles, which carry influence and tenure. 'The presence of some women has masked the absence of groups of women who have been traditionally marginalised' (p. 135). Talking about gender equity (in terms of compul­sory EEO observance) appears to have taken over the actual enaction of EEO principles: 'saying ... (equity)... is equivalent to 'doing' equity' (p. 138). However, unless the principle of gender equity is embedded and inte­gral throughout the hierarchy of the institution, one may as well leave gender off the agenda.

The authors ask that we not be 'seduced by [the] rhetoric that gender equality has been achieved ... gender equality and gender equity are but a mirage' (p. 142). Equal Employment Opportunity legislation requires that higher education organisations refrain from all forms of 'unlawful' discrimination, a nicely quantifiable measure. There is a significant difference, however, between following the law of such work­place rules, and implementing measures designed to advocate genuine equity. This is not an easy text to read. It is packed full of statistical analysis, legislative policy and dense studies, all of which underscore the essential argument that such data demand review. It is, however, a book that should be on every VC's desk.

Review by Patricia Kerslake

Adjunct Research Fellow, Learning and Teaching Research Education Centre, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton; Senior Lecturer, CQU Mel­bourne Campus, VIC 


vol. 53, no. 2, 2011, pp 129 -130

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