1 University of Ottawa (CANADA)
2 Bishop's University (CANADA)
About this paper:
Appears in: ICERI2015 Proceedings
Publication year: 2015
Pages: 6719-6726
ISBN: 978-84-608-2657-6
ISSN: 2340-1095
Conference name: 8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
Dates: 18-20 November, 2015
Location: Seville, Spain
Oxford just hired its first female president in its 767-year history. Two female leaders have been at the helm of McGill University over the past 12 years. A woman has led Harvard University since 2007. But only 14% of the world’s top 200 university presidents are women. In Canada, they make up one in five. And they are more likely to be fired or forced out than their male counterparts: the past six out of seven Canadian university presidents who lost these top jobs are women.

In the course of my Ph.D. studies regarding the unfinished mandates of university presidents in Canada, a significant finding related to issues of gender within the presidential role. With the past six out of seven university presidents with unfinished mandates in Canada being women, there is a strong need for concern. Viewed as strong relationship builders, women are often sought out within times of crisis and brought into an organization at risk.

Interestingly, even the male presidents within my study reflected on the “old boy’s network” within Canadian universities – at the board and executive levels in particular. In fact, when one female president questioned her board president on the board’s lack of diversity, she was told that there was no need for worry as they had a female president. My interviewees underlined the need to make proactive changes to ensure that there is support to diverse leaders in their roles as institutional heads.

For one president, the issue is viewed as central to her situation. Wilson reflects, “The word is gender. There is no question, at least in my mind, that it was a complete gender issue.” (personal interview, April 24, 2014).

A male president comments,
… it was a very, very male world. It was my, it was a very distasteful experience for me because it was my first real encounter with old boy’s club and all the negative connotations that that meant. We control, we operate, and we know, wink wink wink. I hated it. But I thought, I thought I could dismantle it, but it was stronger than me, it’s built into the culture …. (personal interview, May 12, 2014).

Many of the interviewees referred to both expectation management and personal attacks related to gender. One president reflects, “Yes the issue is greater, but there’s no doubt, it’s almost like being female allows you, opens you up to personal attacks” (personal interview, April 24, 2014). In terms of expectations, another female president comments, “I don’t know whether it was that they expected a woman president to be a bit more motherly” (personal interview, April 23, 2014). The issue of women and leadership and diversity and leadership more broadly is evidently far from being solved based on the feedback revealed by these interviews.

The system of higher education is one of the most visible institutions in our society. Universities, in particular, need to take the lead on the issue of diversity and leadership. They need to set a strong example of the outcomes, benefits, and advantages of leadership that represents its student population in ethnicity, gender, and culture. All universities need to do more to ensure that their leaders, their executive teams, and their boards, reflect their communities. To advance this issue, the negative undertones exposed within this research cannot continue. Perseverance, determination, and courage are needed to make that change.
Women, higher education leadership, gender, diversity, male-dominated.