We must tackle the stereotypes that stop women applying for top jobs in higher education. Until then, UK universities will remain bastions of gender inequality.

While gender equality in the workplace has become a much-discussed topic, we still have a long way to go to achieve parity. For example, recent analysis of the Times Higher Education’s world rankings data shows that in 2016–17, 36 of the top 200 universities globally – just 18% – have a female leader. A slight increase on the previous year, when only 17% were led by women, it is nonetheless representative of the gender inequality that persists more widely in higher education across the globe.

But why does the gender gap continue, and to such a significant degree? While cracks are showing in the glass ceiling, we’re now seeing “the glass slipper effect”, a concept based on it, and developed by US academic Karen Lee Ashcraft. This refers to our tendency to see different personality traits as inherently masculine or feminine, making different genders feel that certain job roles aren’t the right fit.

Job adverts which emphasise masculine traits, such as dominance, assertiveness, ambition and competitiveness, can make women believe that they will not fit into the job role and therefore not apply. This does not mean that women do not hold these qualities, but they tend not to view themselves in these terms.

Studies from the US, UK and Germany demonstrate that masculine traits are particularly found in job adverts for leadership positions, as well as jobs in engineering and IT, which may explain the difficulty in recruiting women to these fields. Stereotypes about who belongs in a job are in turn perpetuated by recruitment adverts that use traits considered to be predominantly masculine to describe the perfect candidate.

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My own research [pdf] among Danish women revealed that the majority view top managerial or leadership roles as stereotypically masculine in character. Despite the diversity of the respondents’ own personalities, all were unmotivated to pursue such roles due to the perceived mismatch of identities. This encapsulates the reasons behind the significant lack of female leadership in higher education.

My research suggested that women are more interested in male-dominated professions when job adverts reference a combination of (perceived) male and female traits. Women are more likely to identify with traits such as loyalty, conscientiousness, cooperation and responsibility, traits which are vital for success in any job, regardless of industry.

Research from Grant Thornton and the United Nations has shown that countries including Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines all have between 40% and 50% of executive positions filled by women. European countries and the US have just 20% to 30%.

As for women in science, 47.2% of all researchers in Central Asia were women as of 2014 – but this drops to 32.2% for North America and western Europe. These findings prove that women’s career choices are not influenced by biology, but rather by socially constructed identities varying from culture to culture.

Universities have a responsibility to break down these barriers by positively influencing women’s choices to increase their presence in leadership and seemingly “unconventional” roles, by showing them to be viable and realistic choices. There is a pressing need to deconstruct stereotypical occupational identities if we want more women to enter roles considered masculine (and vice versa).

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One approach would be to think carefully about the role models universities present. There is a tendency to believe that women will appeal to women, and men will appeal to men, when my research has shown that it is much more complex than that. People’s traits resonate much more strongly than appearances alone.

The influence of the glass slipper effect starts early, too, when women are choosing their degrees: there is a great deal of gender segregation at undergraduate level in the UK, with far fewer women enrolling in Stem subjects than men.

Careers advisers should encourage women to consider degrees and career paths traditionally viewed as male-dominated by more carefully communicating the broader range of traits associated with these options. This will help both men and women understand that there are a variety of paths to success in a given role, some of which will suit them better than others.

If recent figures on female leadership in higher education are anything to go by, we have a way to go before the barriers are broken down. But the best start is to acknowledge that the glass slipper effect exists. That way, universities can begin adapting their practices, messages and approaches to career advice to help women see their own personalities as a natural fit for leadership positions.



Credit: The Guardian

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