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While more women are making their way to the highest levels of academic leadership in Europe, the numbers are still shaky and many obstacles remain in their way. Martine Rahier and Lidia Borrell Damian of the European University Association lay down the hard numbers on this topic and propose solutions to propel women to top institutional positions.

In 2016, there were 19.6 million higher education students in the EU according to Eurostat and 54% of these were women. While the overall numbers are positive and demonstrate parity in access to higher education, the data also shows a wide gap in the number of women studying in different disciplines. For example, 80% of students in education were female, while only 25% of engineering students were women.

Eurostat distribution of tertiary education students by field and sex 2016


There are more staggering gaps in the number of women in high-level research positions. According to the European Commission’s 2018 European Research Area Progress Report, only 24% of such positions at higher education institutions in the EU were held by women in 2016. These positions are usually categorised as “Grade A” (She Figures 2015) and in most countries they correspond to the rank of full professor, or otherwise represent the highest position at which research is conducted. Overall, the 30% gap between the percentage of female students in the EU and the percentage of women who reach this high level in research is a startling illustration of the existence of a “leaky pipeline” in reaching the highest academic qualifications.

“Grade A” is normally a prerequisite to go up the ladder in university institutional leadership positions. Therefore, a low rate of Grade A females amongst researchers pre-determines a low rate of female rectors, vice-chancellors, vice-rectors or the equivalent. According to 2019 European University Association (EUA) data on leadership in European universities, which covers 720 universities in 46 countries, we know that there are no female rectors in 22 of these countries and no female vice-rectors in 10.

The data also shows that the proportion of female vice-rectors or vice-presidents has reached an average of 27.8% across the remaining 36 countries in which women hold this position. Among these countries, three demonstrate a strong trend towards gender parity, while four others have reached it with between 45% and 55% female vice-rectors.

2019 male and female vice-rectors, Source: EUA data
2019 male and female vice-rectors, Source: EUA data


In 2014, the first year with available data for vice-rectors, the proportion of female vice-rectors in these 36 countries was 24.3%. Thus, the female share in recent years seems to be only slightly increasing.

Regarding the top institutional position, meaning rector or the equivalent such as president or vice-chancellor, in the 24 countries that have women in this position, only 14.3% of the institutions are currently led by females.


2019 male and female rectors per country, Source: EUA data
2019 male and female rectors per country, Source: EUA data


The proportion of female rectors has been slowly but steadily increasing since 2014, when it was 10.5%. We can see a clear improvement with respect to 2008, when it was only 5.5%. Overall, 14 more countries have female vice-rectors or rectors in 2019.

In contrast, the female share in high-level university management positions seems to be more balanced. Between 2014 and 2019, the proportion of female heads or directors of international relations departments, quality assurance and communication departments ranged from 55% to 67%. However, the share of female heads or directors of research departments has remained unchanged at around 42%.

While the data show signs of progress over the years, we are still far from full parity in European universities and institutional targets and quotas are controversial. The Helsinki report on “Guidance to facilitate the implementation of targets to promote gender equality in research and innovation” gave evidence that their success depends on the active and sustained commitment of institutional leadership. Institutional policies on gender equality are the first step, however, reinforcing their implementation is a must and some universities have put in place training programmes, such as the “High Potential University Leaders Identity & Skills Training Programme - Gender Sensitive Leaders in Academia”, an initiative of swissuniversities.

To see more women in leadership positions, we must also take into account indirect and subtle elements that are characteristic of individual universities. There might be differences that create a disadvantage for women in the election or appointment processes for rectors and vice-rectors. For example, in some universities, the rector’s disciplinary background rotates over the years. This might contribute to the smaller proportion of female rectors, as the number of women in some disciplines is lower than in others. Institutions should reflect on these subtleties.

Institutions must also commit to providing conditions and tools that facilitate the recruitment of women in high-level research positions, as well as in institutional and management positions. An example is the European Women Rectors Association (EWORA), which supports the role of women in leadership positions in the academic sector and advocates for gender equality in higher education and research.

We also need female role models in all fields of knowledge to support women in pursuing their studies, especially in areas traditionally populated by men. Several projects funded by the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation such as GenPORT, Genderaction and ACT, are addressing the gender equality issue from multiple perspectives. ACT will soon generate a Community of Practice to support women in science.

While there are positive signs of more women in high-level positions in university governance and management, much still needs to be done to achieve gender parity. This is especially true in promoting a larger share of women in high-level or permanent research positions, which seems to be one of the main leaks in the pipeline towards institutional leadership.


Lidia Borrell-Damián

Lidia Borrell Damian is EUA Director for Research and Innovation. Among other EU policy priorities, she has contributed to the work of the Helsinki Group on Gender and to the Gender Group of the European Research Area Stakeholders Platform.

Martine Rahier

Prof. Martine Rahier is EUA Vice-President and Chair of EUA Research Policy Working Group. She is a biologist, former Rector of University of Neuchatel (2008-2016) and founding President of “swissuniversities” (2013-2015).

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