The Power to Include: A practice based approach to advancing gender equality at the top

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK are showing a keener interest in gender equality and diversity at work than ever before. There is systematic interest in the progress we make, processes in place to measure our performance, manage our ambitions and focus our goals. There is also interest in spotting and managing talent. Right? If so, why is it then that more men advance into and currently occupy leadership positions than women? In this piece Rachel Dickinson discusses her early findings from a study looking at women in leadership roles in Senior Management Teams (SMT) in Higher Education.

The Equality in higher education: statistical report (Equality Unit) continues to report a dominant hold by men, occupying senior positions in contract levels by gender, most noticeably as institutional leads and at professorial level, which got me asking questions about the possible obstacles and or barriers that might account for the (under) representation of female academics in SMT. Using narrative inquiry, I began to explore the progression pathways of a small group of female academics in SMT roles, and in doing so develop understanding of how access to a patriarchal culture of power is valued, developed and produced.


Do the majority of women really lack the capability to operate in positions of authority or there is something wrong within the management systems and processes that they operate in? Are gender-neutral policies and processes designed to ensure equality practiced equally? 

What evidence has begun to show are the ways in which women on the inside of SMT are taking steps to resist, challenge and change the dominant cultures of power, often tactically or through persistence, sometimes directly, where the opportunity arises, collectively and with experience through process change and challenge. However, this sense of fit or justifiable desire to belong is something that repeats itself throughout the data. On the one hand, presenting gender as a powerful tool with which to control and legitimise behaviours, on the other as necessary to be able to do the kind of work at the top, owing to the agency that accompanies it. 


What are women’s lived experiences of performing gender at SMT levels; what do they find necessary to perform and can their performances be disruptive?

In many of the narratives collected women speak about ‘parity’, ‘fairness’, ‘values’, ‘morality’, ‘injustice’, ‘inequity’, ‘changing lives’ and essentially ‘making a difference’. Whether this is because of who they are as individuals or because they are women is not possible to know, but it does raise a further question about priorities in SMT and how these are practiced. What is also evident in the data are insights into range of competencies that women feel that they are bringing to SMT, and in some cases how these are being used to challenge the dominant and or normative approaches to many aspects of management, whether through empathy, negotiation, values and or collaborative problem solving.


Who shapes the visible and invisible obstacles of the ‘rules of the culture of power’, which mitigate against women acquiring and maintaining powerful positions in HEI SMT?

The inquiry began and continues in the local and lived realities of individual lives. What I know now is that gender equality or diversity work is action orientated. It is lived and practiced through our daily actions and interactions. In what is spoken and what is said without words. Culture, or normalised common-sense ways of behaving and believing is perhaps the most obvious obstacle and source of existential tension for women seeking and maintaining powerful positions in the HE sector.


How do women experience the tensions between accommodating to the culture of power whilst also seeking to challenge and change it?

With this in mind, is cultural change where we need to focus our attention, rather than make changes to processes and mechanisms of governance that continue to be shaped, on the most part, by those who already belong to the ‘culture of power’? If so, and here lies the rub … significant change in tackling the dominant and masculinised ‘culture of power’ depends on significant change in the demographics and inclusive decision-making processes of SMT. Hence, the need for compromise and the careful negotiation of the continued tension between the need to submit to and accommodation of the majority, as it is with the desire to use seniority to disrupt and challenge.

What I am sure at this point in the study is that women’s experience of work cannot be isolated from their broader experiences of self and their everyday lives. Equal opportunity initiatives that don’t consider the inequalities, experiences and identity shaping of opportunities only serve to mask rather than challenge the culture that produces an ‘absence’ of women and other minorities in SMT.

For more information on this research please contact: