Are we there yet? Achieving gender balance in senior education leadership positions.

Nan Bahr, October 17, 2019

A quick scan of the gender profile of leaders in the education sector shows that women are still underrepresented, generally speaking, in leadership positions. In this blog, I try to map the current situation, suggest reasons for the disparity, and provide some recommendations for remedial action. But first, why?

Education is often identified as a feminised profession (e.g., Drudy, 2008; Moreau, 2019). This characterisation might reflect upon the days when governesses were engaged to teach children in the homes of the wealthy nobility. Or maybe it arises from a perceived alignment between these jobs and the stereotyped image of a nurturing woman blessed with a deep drive to satisfy maternal instinct through vocations that connect them with children. Service and direct care roles such as teaching and nursing are afflicted similarly, although, in the last decades, more and more men have been welcomed to these types of vocations.

This image of the nurturing woman doesn’t sit well with hard-nosed leadership profiles, and the result is that men tend to scale the greasy pole to leadership much more readily. Additionally women also still bear much of the burden for domestic responsibilities, child-rearing, and of course women are always the ones who give birth. The result is that many more women than men have substantial breaks in their teaching career while they tend to household business. Men typically don’t experience these breaks, and this helps to facilitate their more rapid and complete career progression to the heady heights of educational leadership before and ahead of their female colleagues.

In higher education the issues are intensified by the fact that women haven’t been a part of academia for very long. The first woman to graduate with an undergraduate degree in Australia was Bella Guerin, awarded in 1883, only 104 years ago. Daria Love was the first woman awarded a Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney Veterinary Department, in 1973, 46 years ago. She also became the first woman Associate Professor in 1981 (National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, 2019). So women are late arrivals to academic careers. But the world has turned a few times since 1980’s, and it is not unreasonable to expect a balanced representation of women in higher education leadership. There have been gains, but as yet, there isn’t equity.

I randomly selected six Universities (not including my own) and engaged in a desktop profile of their executive from their official websites. I tallied the number of executive positions in their governance structures and calculated the percentage proportion of these leadership positions that are held by women. Table 1 shows my findings. Overall, of 84 executive positions, 54 were held by men (64%), and 31 were held by women (36%).  University #2 and #6 were surprising. These two universities had female representation in their leadership sitting at 50% and 57% respectively. However, even with these relatively high proportions in the mix, the combined average by institution was 39% women to 61% men. But, I hear you say, maybe that’s a fair representation of the number of women, compared to men, who are contemporary academics. We have come a long way since 1981, and there are many more women working as academics. The latest data provided by the Department of Education reports that of 51,669 people working as continuing or fixed-term academics, 24,600 are women (47%) (Australian Government, Department of Education, 2019). So it can be reasonably concluded that women are not yet fairly represented in higher education leadership. The problem begins with the pipeline to leadership.

Table 1 Percentage balance between males and female holding Senior Executives at six Australian Universities

University % Male % Female
1 65 35
2 50 50
3 64 36
4 67 33
5 75 25
6 43 57
Average 60.7 39.3
Figure 1: The balance between senior higher education executive positions held by women and men (%) in Australia.

The academic hierarchy in Australia starts at Associate Lecturer (Level A), next is Lecturer (Level B), Senior Lecturer (Level C), Associate Professor (Level D), and finally Professor (Level E). There are some other honorary positions that recognise excellence such as Distinguished Professor, or Emeritus Professor, but they are scarce and don’t normally connect to executive leadership roles. Figure 2 graphs the percentage of men and women at each academic rank from Level A, through level B, level C, and to Levels D/E. The data comes from the most recent publicly available and official Department of Education figures (2018).  It is very clear from this picture that women are more prominently represented at the lower ranks than men. There is a cross over point at Senior Lecturer where men take the lead from the women in these more senior positions.

Figure 2 Percentages of academics by career stage and gender

So it remains that women, despite their increasing engagement as academics in Australian higher education, have not yet broken the glass ceiling. It seems unreasonable for the future of our knowledge society to rest on unbalanced foundations. But what can we do to address this problem? I propose three actions.

  1. Women, you must apply early for leadership positions with the confidence that you can and will perform the role with aplomb.
  2. Women, you must mentor and support each other to back yourselves and to work strategically to build your career milestones.
  3. Men, don’t underestimate women who may not have your seniority in the system. Their capabilities will respond to opportunity in surprising ways with flexible support.

Please note, I’m not recommending affirmative action. I am suggesting a change in spirit. I’m calling for us all to raise our expectations for the achievements of women, and to ensure that barriers to progression are eliminated through the provision of flexible workplaces, and mutual respect. The best candidate for the next leadership position may be a woman.


Australian Government, Department of Education (2019). Higher education statistics: Staff data. Retrieved from:

Bahr, N. (2019). On the behaviour of jets. Retrieved from:

Drudy, S. (2008). Gender balance/gender bias: The teaching profession and the impact of feminisation. Gender and education, 20(4), 309-323.

Moreau, M. P. (2019). Teachers, Gender and the Feminisation Debate. Routledge.

National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame (2019). HerStory archive. Retrieved from

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