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The growing participation of women in higher education is not yet reflected in university leadership. Here, Kerstin Mey examines barriers to reaching a critical mass of female leaders in higher education and current initiatives to promote greater inclusion, as well as the benefits progress on this will bring on campuses and beyond.

At a time when threats to planetary health, humankind and all life on earth have reached existential dimensions, the diversity of talent matters more than ever to address complex ecological and societal challenges. To drive lasting change towards sustainability and regenerative futures, higher education has to be re-imagined and must promote equality and inclusion at every level.


While female students make up half of enrolments in higher education globally, the number of women in leadership positions does not (yet) reflect their growing participation rate. This means that societal and systemic barriers to women rising to the top remain in place, and are even increasing in some parts of the world.

While in many European countries the number of women in senior positions in higher education (HE) has grown to various degrees in recent times, in other jurisdictions, the lack of female leaders persists and perpetuates the scarcity of respective role models for students and staff. The lack of a critical mass of female leaders in higher education institutions (HEIs) impacts opportunities to develop institutional and sectoral networks of support and the sharing of experiences and best practice for current and emerging women in senior roles. This also limits the ability to shift gender dynamics and power relations at executive and legislative decision making levels.

With gender being a key, but not the only, determinant in shaping inclusive and equitable organisational cultures, it is vital to grow diversity across the board in HEIs and to establish a leadership team that is equipped to drive changes in policies and practices, standards, processes and procedures. It is crucial to recognise and foster the enabling factors that aid the personal, professional and leadership development of women in higher education. This includes the recognition of carer responsibilities in the design and application of professional progression and promotion criteria, flexible working models and childcare facilities, equitable distribution of workload and closing gender pay gaps.


The growing participation of women in higher education offers significant opportunities to build a critical mass of talent for developing future generations of female leaders from the ground up and to equip them to transform higher education, research and management. This cannot be left to chance but requires the design and implementation of sectoral development initiatives such as Aurora, Advance HE's (UK) Leadership Development Programme for Women. The prevailing chasms between political rhetoric and gendered norms on the one hand, and social and organisational practices on the other, have to be consistently identified and persistently addressed through multi-pronged approaches.

A growing number of HEIs, including the University of Limerick, have employed the (expanded) Athena Swan Charter as a framework to support and transform gender equality across the organisation through gap analysis, action plans and aligned policy and practice developments. Practical measures in UL include tailored staff development initiatives, for instance on unconscious bias and the skills to influence, persuade and empower, mentor and coach. Moreover, the introduction of a research grant for returning carers, the establishment of dedicated staff support networks, mentoring and coaching of women in academic and professional support roles have demonstrated their potential to enhance career opportunities, including progression and promotion successes. The redrafting of terms of reference for committees and working groups also ensures equality of representation.

At the sectoral level, initiatives such as the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI), administered in Ireland by the Higher Education Authority, are directed at areas of academic underrepresentation and contribute to accelerate gender balance at senior levels within HEIs and across the sector.

Cultural audits and periodic pulse reviews are valuable instruments to identify and address areas in need of improvement and allow a greater focus on remedying persistent and more ‘subcutaneous’ equality issues. A coherent and consistent workload allocation model across a HEI aids the equitable spread of responsibilities and provision of time for professional development across teaching, research and academic leadership. It supports the systematic identification of individual and collective development needs.

The urgency, purpose and resolve required to tackle the complex and interdependent planetary and societal challenges demand a reconsideration of learning formats, curriculum innovation, the stimulation of research with societal impact and the overhaul of organisational structures in HE. Shifting established value propositions, engrained attitudes, habitual patterns and cemented institutional cultures needs to start with appropriate and agile leadership frameworks, tools and practices capable of engendering a breadth of sustainable and regenerative developments at systemic levels.

In the present transitional situation, significant opportunities are emerging to advance equality and diversity in higher education and research. The adoption of distributed leadership models and inclusive institutional consultation processes is vital for catalysing participatory and bottom-up engagement. Open space technologies and co-creation broaden leadership opportunities and need to be nurtured to affect organisational change with wider societal impact. Leading from the top and by example as a female university president, building a diverse and committed senior team, an empowering institutional ethos and a welcoming and inclusive working environment are as important as shaping powerful sectoral alliances and advocacy initiatives – nationally and internationally – to advance gender equality and help build a fair and resilient society.


Kerstin Mey
University of Limerick

Kerstin Mey is President of the University of Limerick, Ireland and Professor of Visual Culture. On her appointment in 2020, she became the first female president of an Irish university in the sector’s 428-year history.

She has worked in HEIs in Germany, the UK and Ireland, building a track record of pioneering education and research initiatives as well as creative projects in higher education. She holds a doctorate in art theory/aesthetics from Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and her research interests focus on 20th century and contemporary art, artistic research, art in public spaces and public pedagogies and the relationship between art, documentation and archives.

Image: University of Limerick ©

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