Study in bias

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 May, 2012, 12:00am


The University of Hong Kong is recruiting a new vice-chancellor, and this seems an opportune moment to examine the gender imbalance in academia in Hong Kong and ask why a profession that seems a natural calling for women remains such a male bastion, especially at the top.

On the surface, academia in Hong Kong is filled with women. Employment rates in universities are nearly at parity - 52per cent men and 48per cent women. But the true picture is of an inverted pyramid. At the lowest ranks - administrative support and junior researchers - the numbers of men and women are about equal. Among junior academic staff, however, men outnumber women two to one. The number of women higher up the chain plummets even further, with men outnumbering women six to one in senior academic positions in 2011.

The reason for the under-representation of women at senior levels is not for lack of highly educated, talented women. It is, rather, symptomatic of the glass ceiling in academia.

Roughly equal numbers of women and men enrol in postgraduate programmes - 4,976 and 5,064 for the 2011 academic year, respectively. However, there is a startling lack of women attaining tenured professorships or dean appointments and, to date, Hong Kong has not appointed a woman as vice-chancellor of any of its tertiary institutions.

Why are there so few women in senior academic positions? Research in 2008 by a City University student on the career choices of male and female science and engineering doctoral students sheds some light on this issue. The women chose to pursue primarily teaching-oriented postgraduate studies while the men chose research-oriented positions.

The impact of this is that women end up being excluded from the tenure track, given the emphasis on academic publications as a critical factor in tenure appointments. There are also the inevitable lifestyle disincentives. Women with children are much more likely than men with children to opt out of the tenure track, and the peak years for academic publications towards tenure coincide with peak childbearing years for women.

A 2012 report commissioned by the British Council shows that women's under-representation in academic leadership is a global phenomenon and has serious negative consequences. It represents a waste of skills and perpetuates social injustice through the exclusionary structures, processes and practices in higher education. It also results in a gender bias in knowledge and innovation, limiting the influence women can have in shaping education and addressing global issues in research and innovation.

Hong Kong's colleges and universities need to be more proactive about dismantling entrenched gender biases that deter women from staying in the academic pipeline to attain senior roles.

HKU still has the opportunity to break the mould for academia in terms of a more transparent nomination and appointment procedure and a genuinely diverse slate of candidates. Let's hope the university rises to the challenge.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO and Lisa Moore is research associate at The Women's Foundation. This article is part of a monthly series on women and gender issues, developed in collaboration with the foundation