How to Help Women Reach the Top of Academia


May 15, 2017 By G. John Cole

When Robin Sakamoto became dean of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Tokyo’s Kyorin University in April 2014, she was only the second foreign woman to be awarded a deanship at a Japanese institution.

As she told The Japan Times a few months into her tenure: “For a student to see me — for example, when someone announces, ‘Now the dean will speak’ — the young women in the audience can think, ‘Yes, I can do that too someday.’

The value of role models such as Dean Sakamoto is not to be underrated. Surprisingly, only 15% of full professors in European institutions are women, against a female employment rate of 36% working in universities overall. This suggests that if there is already a shortfall of women in academia, much more encouragement is needed to help them rise to the top. And as Sakamoto points out, only by working closely side-by-side can male and female academics alike find a fulfilling balance bet

ween professional success and family life.

This May, the Association of MBAs will hold its 50th anniversary Global Deans and Directors Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Attendees can look forward to informed discussion on progressive themes from globalization to digital learning, but many will be especially curious about an opening day session titled Women and the MBA: A Business Case. 

Speakers including Professor Danica Purg, President and Dean at IEDC Bled School of Management, will ask how business schools that are successful in attracting women graduates manage to do so, and why it is so important that these and other schools continue to do so.

A key challenge is to break the self-perpetuating image of the traditional male scientist or ‘man of power.' An increase in the number of women who achieve these positions would help to eradicate this dated assumption. Further, the roles of women who do reach senior academic positions need to be carefully observed to ensure that they are given the opportunity to fulfill and present themselves as researchers and decision makers, rather than being limited to stereotypically ‘female' skills such as teaching, administration, and student care.

Women in or considering academia must also fight the self-effacement that comes with centuries of institutional bias and patterns of speech that reinforce dated social expectations. Research has shown that women “tend to underestimate their abilities, whereas men tend to overestimate theirs.” Academic and recruitment staff alike can work together to create an atmosphere that takes the fact that women are as capable, intelligent, and versatile as men, to be an absolute norm.

Methods of evaluating university staff also tend to perpetuate this cycle. Regardless of gender, institutions tend to evaluate performance on the basis of research output rather than teaching and other forms of input. Not only can universities benefit from diversifying the roles of women among their ranks, but they can also increase opportunities – and standards – by diversifying their means of evaluation.

The post-MBA business world has its part to play. In Ireland, for example, just 10.5% of the board members of the largest companies are women, so it's no wonder that 20% of women in business believe they can never make it to the top. Universities should be the starting point for engendering self-belief and providing role models that match women's aspirations, but businesses need to play their part by exhibiting a healthy demand and providing equal rewards for diverse leaders.

Financial incentives for schools may be an effective way of capitalizing on evolving attitudes and expectations. Women actually have a higher success rate when it comes to getting promoted; it is the low number of women who are encouraged to seek promotion that keeps the balance uneven. Funding initiatives such as Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) or the Athena SWAN Charter, for which institutions must demonstrate an active commitment to eliminating gender bias (among other forms of bias), can be a positive way to develop a culture in which women are expected and encouraged to seek promotion. In Australia, more than half of all universities signed up to the program when it opened.

Women have too much to offer to the worlds of academia and of business for progress to be left to chance, particularly when institutional bias is so deeply ingrained. Cooperation, mutual support, and the celebration of good role models are all good ways to build upon the progress that is being made, but institutional policy – financial and otherwise – needs to be a priority if schools are to make meaningful improvements with the pace that our society demands.