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Women in Higher education – Feminisation of Teaching parallels Underrepresentation in Leadership

The overall representation of women in higher education is on an upward trend, reflected in findings as recent EUROSTAT data that shows consistently across all member states a higher proportion of female than male graduates in higher education. Out of almost 5 million tertiary education graduates in 2014 women represented 58% pointing to a new kind of gender imbalance favourable to women, who by now top men in completion rates across the union.  At a closer look though, disparities persist in the representation of woman and men by various disciplinary arenas.  Indeed more women are entering and completing tertiary education, but with a clear overrepresentation in particularly the field of Education, making up 80% of graduates while men continue to dominate Science, Mathematics and Computing fields. A recent OECD report entitled Gender imbalances in the teaching profession , further ties in with imbalances that may be increasingly rooted at the level of subject disciplines, with education itself high up on the list. The report finds:

  • The predominance of female teachers in education has risen to an OECD average of 68% in 2015 (61% in 2014). Gender disparities decrease with the level of education, and particularly at the tertiary level disparities are dwindling - female teachers making up 43% in higher education.
  • Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Russia are the only four countries where women have a higher representation in the teaching profession at tertiary level. Japan, Germany and Greece are the three countries with the steepest increase in the share of female teachers.
  • The largest share of women is found in the younger, or below the age of 30, generation of teachers. This raises caution as to an impending exasperation in disparities in the future. 
  • Female teachers are found to confront lower levels of income discrimination in educational positions, which can be inferred to enhance the attractiveness of teaching careers for women.

There is evidence of an ongoing “feminisation” of the teaching profession over the last decade with upwards trends observed the majority of OECD counties. The gender gap thus shows fluidity across fields and education levels, national context but also significantly at the ranks of responsibility.  Despite women representing a majority in the teaching profession - 68% at secondary level - they are chronically underrepresented in leadership positions with only 45% female principals. Recent data from the European University Association (EUA) shows that only 12% of rector positions are filled by women in the sample of EUA’s 47 European members.  The Nordics - Sweden, Norway and Finland- well known for their advanced gender policies and equitable societies,  with  1/3 of rectors positions held by women, show stronger female representation in the upper echelons of higher education. Although differences in gender equality are significant across countries, many exhibit  a below 10% representation rate of women in leadership. The European Commission’s annual She figures 2015 – point out the critical obstacle that there are far too few women who hold positions qualifying them to move into the upper echelons – merely 21% of full professorships in the EU-28 are held women.

Besides teaching, gender balance is also a key discourse in higher education’s research dimension. Key European education programmes as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) pose as an excellency-example for enhancing the representation of women in science, performing best in gender balance in Horizon2020 with 40% of selected beneficiaries being female. In a bid to promote gender equality, the European Commission has also developed measures as the 2014 Gender in EU-funded research, Toolkit that offers guidance on a practical way forward to integrate gender awareness into research.

As gender is a fluid concept so are imbalances and the causes which prevail within it across countries. Challenges to equalize representation remain characterized by paradoxes - while the teaching profession becomes increasingly feminized and recruitment of principals prominently takes place within the ranks of the teaching body, women remain under the glass ceiling by a gender-driven gap in job promotion opportunities and support for career progression, critical to equalizing higher education leadership.