Hong Kong universities lack female leadership, says pro-vice chancellor of Chinese University

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 May, 2013, 11:50am

Women have long broken through the glass ceiling in public life in Hong Kong. No one blinks an eye if the chief secretary for administration or the permanent secretary for education is a woman, and it might not be long before we have our first female chief executive.

But Hong Kong's tertiary institutions are another story. With the exception of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, none of the city's universities have had a woman vice-chancellor or president. And across Hong Kong, there are just four women pro-vice chancellors.

Professor Fanny Cheung Mui-ching, the first woman pro-vice chancellor of Chinese University, presented stark data at a workshop on women's leadership, organised by the British Council in Dubai, on the fringes of the Going Global conference.

Women might account for 53 per cent of undergraduate students in Hong Kong, but the higher the academic rank, the sparser they become - 43 per cent of research postgraduates, 34 per cent of faculty members, 4 per cent of deans, and zero vice-chancellors or presidents.

Hong Kong does well in the Times Higher Education's international rankings, but not in its Global Gender Index, where it falls in the middling rank for proportion of women in academia and would not register in the top leadership at all.

But Hong Kong academics, along with their peers in other countries in East Asia, had something to do with that index.

It's ironic that universities - which position themselves as socially progressive institutions - remain ruled by conservative networks of men

In a Manifesto for Change - put together at a workshop on women in academic leadership and research held here last September as part of the British Council's Global Education Dialogues series - they called for gender to be included in international rankings to promote change. THE's index is a first response.

The achievements of women in public office prove they have as much to offer as men. Yet it is ironic that universities - which position themselves as socially progressive institutions - remain ruled by conservative networks of men.

Cheung cites a multitude of factors holding women back: gender stereotyping and bias within institutions and their power structures; the challenges for women in juggling teaching, research and family lives; and a lack of gender sensitive support.

Another factor may be that a key criterion for a vice-chancellorship in Hong Kong, it seems, is international success in scientific research. Women are less well-represented in this area because of the challenges they face earlier in their research careers. Cheung also cites a lack of role models and champions.

Hong Kong does not have a Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan, vice-chancellor of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who is impressive as a leader, as well as an advocate for women. When hiring she refuses to accept that there are no potential women candidates for a senior post and will scour for suitable women to stand for selection. Among those she has supported in their career, none have let her down, she says.

In Malaysia there are laws to enforce female representation. An official quota stipulates that women should comprise at least 30 per cent of the leadership of public and private institutions. Sharifah told the Dubai workshop she would be making sure that quota was achieved in the coming round of vice-chancellor appointments.

Whether or not quotas are necessary, Hong Kong needs to consider why so few women are reaching the top echelons of our universities; what those who are nearly at the top are adding; and what can be done to build more gender sensitive cultures to make best use of women's talents, at all levels of leadership. Someone should be seeking to include women as serious contenders for the next heads of the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University, with appointments pending in the coming months.

After all, HKU has already had a woman leading the development of its new four-year curriculum, the most significant academic and human resource change a university can undertake. There are women at home and abroad who could be included in those shortlists.

Only then can Hong Kong move off the floor of the THE Global Gender Index.

Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link