Female leadership at the world’s top 200 universities in an international ranking fell this year to 17%, according to a report – a reminder that gender equity in science remains a distant goal.
Just 34 of leading universities named in this year’s annual Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings have female presidents, down 1% from the 36 that were led by women in 2017.
Among the listing’s top-ranked institutions are University of Oxford, UK; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Imperial College London, UK; University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; University of California, Berkeley. The rankings consider research, teaching, international outlook and reputation among other factors.
The THE report pinpoints some global bright spots for women. In Sweden, four of the six named institutions are led by women. Of the 27 nations represented in the ranking, the United States has the highest number led by women at 11. Still, the report notes, there is an overall gender gap in universities globally, with 17 of 27 countries having no female university leadership.
Janet Metcalfe, head of Vitae, a Cambridge, UK-based researcher advocacy group, says that she is less concerned about the slight drop in female-led universities than she is about the overall trend in low gender representation at top university positions. “There should be more gender equality at the highest levels,” Metcalfe says. “More women in leadership positions provides positive role models for female academics and can encourage better gender balance and diversity at all levels.”
The report, which is released after a year’s worth of news about sexual harassment in academia, government and the entertainment industry, among other areas of employment, highlights the need for action to achieve gender parity at all levels and in all sectors of the international workforce. Metcalfe notes that although female scientists tend to be equally represented in the life sciences in most nations, they still lag male scientists in maths, chemistry and engineering.
Whether the spotlight on sexual harassment and gender equality leads to change has yet to be seen, Metcalfe notes. She conducted research for the Global Research Council in 2016 – a consortium of research councils from various nations — in an effort to promote gender equity that led to a statement on gender equality in science that was endorsed by 45 countries.
Still, promoting gender equity at all levels of university employment—not to mention in the top spots—will take much work and effort, including changing recruitment and retention strategies and overcoming issues like unconscious gender bias. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we all trying hard enough?’” Metcalfe says.
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.