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Support for current and aspiring women leaders: an exploration of UK higher education institutions' responses.

Diack, Lesley; Pedersen, Sarah; MacLennan, Susan; Falconer, Midj; Gillibrand, Emma; McFadyen, Morag; Watson, Alison


Lesley Diack

Susan MacLennan

Midj Falconer

Emma Gillibrand

Morag McFadyen

Alison Watson


This research was funded by Advance HE’s Small Development Fund to explore higher education institutions' (HEIs') mechanisms for the support and advancement of current and aspiring women leaders. Over recent years there has been an increase in the number of women holding senior and executive level positions in the higher education (HE) sector, but there is a continued lack of proportional representation of women at these levels. The aim of the research was to generate findings that could inform policy and highlight best practice to address the support mechanisms needed to develop current and aspiring women leaders within HEIs. This research is important to inform senior leaders, stakeholder policymakers, organisational developers, Aurora champions and aspiring women leaders. The research explored how HEIs were working with Aurora, a women-only leadership programme, and other mechanisms available to support women’s leadership aspirations. The views and experiences of women at all levels within HEIs were sought from the diverse populations of women working in HE. This included women who had held leadership roles and those with no current leadership responsibilities but with aspirations to a leadership role. Perspectives on support mechanisms in HEIs were obtained using two online surveys: an institution survey for the HEIs, and a women’s survey for women employed at HEIs. Both informal and formal support mechanisms were explored, as well as where responses from the two surveys showed there was agreement and differences in the perspectives of support available. One thousand two hundred and forty one women completed the women’s survey, with the range of academic disciplines and administrative posts within HEIs represented. The survey was open to women and those who identified as women. Thirty-four HEIs completed the institution survey, with responses from pre- and post-1992 universities. The majority of these were located in England and Scotland, although the survey was open to all HEIs in the UK. The findings demonstrated the range of support mechanisms available to women in HEIs to facilitate the achievement of their leadership aspirations. There was a high level of agreement from the women respondents that there was support available within their institution to aid their leadership aspirations. However, this perception of support was found to vary, and could be dependent on other aspects such as ethnicity or nationality, having a disability or the type of work role. These aspects, along with care responsibilities and marital status, were also perceived to have had an impact on the women’s career aspirations. A high prevalence of aspiration to a leadership role by both those with current leadership responsibilities and those without was indicated. Over half of the women had applied for a leadership programme, and nearly two thirds had applied for, or sought, promotion once or more. Generally, there was a positive view of women-only leadership programmes by both the institutions and the women participating in the project. Three quarters of the women respondents, both those who had completed a women-only leadership programme and those who had not, perceived benefits to a women-only leadership programme. This was in accordance with the institutions’ perspective, with 86% of institutions responding that they offer women-only leadership programmes, and over half of those who did not currently offer such programmes considering doing so. The findings highlighted that support mechanisms could be both facilitators of achieving leadership aspirations, but also barriers where these support mechanisms were absent or implemented incorrectly. Furthermore, the findings emphasised that women in HE should not be considered to be homogenous in their experiences, advancement goals and support needs. This report recommends that women employed in the higher education sector should not be assumed to have the same support needs or advancement goals and none require the same processes to help them achieve their career aspirations. This should be taken into consideration in the provision of support mechanisms. The findings also suggested a more tailored approach to leadership training, taking into account aspects in addition to gender, such as care responsibilities, that may impact on career aspirations. HEIs need to respond to the clear interest in advancement to leadership roles and the positive outcomes that can be gained from participation in leadership programmes, and implement outcomes measures for the impact of support mechanisms on women’s leadership aspirations. Support may be required for HEIs to implement and maintain these effectively.


DIACK, L., PEDERSEN, S., MACLENNAN, S., FALCONER, M., GILLIBRAND, E., MCFADYEN, M. and WATSON, A. 2019. Support for current and aspiring women leaders: an exploration of UK higher education institutions' responses. London: Advance-HE [online]. Available from:

Report Type Project Report
Online Publication Date Jun 18, 2019
Publication Date Jun 18, 2019
Deposit Date Sep 20, 2019
Publicly Available Date Sep 20, 2019
Publisher Advance-HE
Series Title Small develoment projects
Keywords Women; Leadership; Higher education; Support mechanisms; Aspirations
Public URL
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