Gender balance: universities need hard targets to make real change



If the academy is still “all talk and too many trousers”, are targets or even quotas the answer, asked Laurie Cohen and Jo Duberley in a recent Times Higher Education article.

Increasingly, the conclusion being reached by large organisations across industries and other sectors is “yes” – if we actually want to make meaningful changes to the proportion of women in leadership positions. Experience and research show that the situation is unlikely to resolve itself organically.

The efficacy of using targets was proven with Lord Davies’ review on FTSE companies in 2010-15. The percentage of women on their boards increased only five percentage points in the decade to 2010, and stagnated at about 12 per cent. The Davies review introduced a target to more than double that figure in four years.

Alongside the target were specific recommended measures aimed at various stakeholders, publicly acknowledging that the issue was not one for the women alone to solve. One recommendation was the regular input of academic data, and I was privileged to be a part of the team providing that.

The target was achieved, and the review was a success (the percentage of women on our largest corporate boards now stands at more than 27 per cent). From interviews with 30 major stakeholders involved with the change (chairs, chief executives, female directors, headhunters) in 2015, the use of a target was acknowledged as utterly critical.

This has since been validated by the very large number of major organisations publicly stating gender and/or diversity targets for below-board level and across their organisations (Lloyds, BHP Billiton, KPMG, LV, Clifford Chance, GSK, EY, to name but a few). The new government-backed review under Sir Philip Hampton and Dame Helen Alexander has accepted a target for all boards, executive committees and their direct reports to have 33 per cent female representation by 2020.

Following the private sector’s lead, Ed Smith (chair of NHS Improvement) has issued a target for all NHS hospital boards in England to be “50:50 by 2020”. Given that more than 70 per cent of the NHS working population (the UK’s largest employer) is female and that the majority of graduates from medical school have been female since 1993, this is not an unreasonable ask.

But quotas and targets offend our sense of meritocracy, legitimacy and democracy. Yet all evidence shows that we do not live in a meritocracy. Ironically, issues of legitimacy are overcome with the “critical mass” of women ensured by most targets. So unless we really believe that men are better qualified for leadership positions, quotas or targets become a rational, legitimate response to structural barriers, ensuring more meritocratic outcomes.

Another challenge with targets is in the definition of success: are we seeking descriptive change (increasing the number of women) or substantive change (changing the corporate culture)? Quota discussions are often “either/or” and unclear as to which should come first. But in the UK, following the hard work of the past few years in the private sector, we are making progress that could allow both descriptive change and substantive change.

Just seven years ago, the idea of using targets would have been completely rejected by most large organisations. But the success of the boardroom targets, on what had previously been a long-entrenched issue, has shown how measurable objectives, which of course would be used in any other business change programme, can and do work.

Isn’t it time that higher education considered the evidence base of what actually works in bringing about real change?

Author Bio: Ruth Sealy, associate professor, University of Exeter Business School.