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Women leadership: Break the glass ceiling

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 2:32pm

Global, international and ever-changing through technological innovation, our increasingly complex world demands new ways of effective leadership. This is not only true for businesses and enterprises, but also higher educational institutions (HEIs), which constantly face new issues and challenges.

The British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organisation for educational and cultural opportunities, recently brought together more than a hundred experts, leaders and influential figures in Hong Kong at a two-day event – part of six Global Education Dialogues: The East Asia Series – to offer a framework for the discussion of challenges and solutions.

Dr Halima Begum

“Higher education institutions’ leadership is now more complex. The job is to lead an institution that is about learning, and also allow that institution to grow in a turbulent economic period. The challenge is both maintaining academic excellence and finding diverse income sources,” Dr Halima Begum, director of education, British Council East Asia, said. “The challenges are more urgent, the rewards are bigger.”

Professor Fanny Cheung

According to Professor Fanny Cheung, pro-vice chancellor of Chinese University (CUHK), the context is also changing. Not long ago applicants to Hong Kong’s universities were predominantly male, but now more than half of undergraduate enrolment is female; there are a growing number of international students and lecturers, and more international co-operation in research. There are also new demands on teaching, as students need to acquire lifelong learning, self-management, teamwork and problem-solving competencies, beyond their specialisation.

“A different definition of leadership is required. A more flexible, inclusive leadership, which is a catalyst, an agent who navigates unknown challenges,” Begum said.

Inclusive leadership understands how groups operate, and can include different styles and processes. It is global in outlook and, like a multinational firm, finds diverse income sources and growth strategies, and co-operates with universities across borders.

“Universities compete for students at an international level. Research topics are cross-disciplinary, such as researching climate change. Different countries are unlocking the talents of different people. If we are not tapping into anything outside our network, we will keep having the same conversation,” Begum said.

Inclusive leadership also means one which is more diverse and includes women, but they often find it difficult to climb the echelons.

In Hong Kong, female undergraduate enrolment is 53 per cent, but only 35 per cent of faculty members are women. In leadership positions in 2013 there were only four pro-vice chancellors and no vice-chancellors or presidents.

“The leadership usually excels in research. Women need to be in high-impact areas to get into leadership positions, but there are far fewer women [then men] in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, areas which tend to be given high esteem in research,” explained Cheung, much of whose research has focused on gender equality and woman leadership during her distinguished career.

With more women getting PhDs than ever before, special attention should be given to those who would like to continue in academia, she suggested.

When they enter the profession, they are in a life-cycle where they have to take care of young children. Mentoring should be offered to help them chart their career path within the system, part-time research fellowships made available, and more flexible re-entry into the profession.

The over-represented groups should be involved in championing, mentoring and co-sponsoring the under-represented ones to create a better chance of success.

Female role models should be made more visible through presentations that focus on the positive to change the narrative. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” Begum said. “Start building a vision for girls when they are young. Change how we think about it: it is our own attitude that is inhibiting us.”

Women are known to have a more participatory approach to problem-solving. They have consultations and discussions with team members, and consider different needs and contexts. They are effective communicators and promote communication and dialogue both within the team and with outside members.

“Women can be very effective in this changing ecology of the leadership environment,” Cheung said.

The traditional image of the leader was rather like that of a lonely hero who had made it to the top of the mountain. These days, leaders are advised to move away from that image, get help and involve teams locally and globally in solving problems which are more complex than ever.