Brighten Youth Education Centre



Women on top?


According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, in the 2015-16 academic year 17% of the world’s top 200 universities were run by women (14% of the top 100). This week we aim to celebrate the careers of some of these fearsome females, as well as highlighting the astounding gender gap still present at the world’s top universities, a gender gap that is also distinctly racialised as the vast majority of these individuals were also Caucasian. So while we salute these highly accomplished ladies, it’s clearly far too early to break out the equality champagne yet.

At the very beginning of 2016 the appointment of Louise Richardson (a political scientist specialising in terrorism) as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford made headlines around the world, as she became the first woman to attain this position in the university’s 767-year history. One month later in Stockholm, Karin Dahlman-Wright also became Vice-Chancellor of the Karolinska Institutet, one of Sweden’s most illustrious medical universities. Dahlman-Wright is a molecular endocrinologist and is one of four women to lead top Swedish universities (Uppsala University, Stockholm University and the University of Gothenburg). Top science university Imperial College London has been headed by a woman since 2014 when Alice Gast, a chemical engineer, was made President.

Across the Atlantic women have been in the driving seat at some of America’s premier institutions for slightly longer. Professor of History Drew Faust became President of Harvard in 2007. As the university’s first female president, she has been a vehement critic of sexism and the gender gap. When she began her career in 1964, she was barred from attending Yale or Princeton, faced strict curfews and couldn’t wear trousers to class or dinner. Faust has also warned against the complacency prevalent in a society where women, including herself, have achieved so much in such a short period of time. The fact that every single one of these institutions is appointing a female head for the first time shows that there is still much ground to travel.

Even the longest-serving female head of a top university has only been in her position for a little over a decade. Amy Gutmann, a political scientist, became President of the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, having been one of the first generation of low and middle-income students to attend the university. In 2011, Newsweek voted Gutmann one of the “150 Women who Shake the World”, alongside Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey and Sheryl Sandberg. Drew Faust is right about cultural complacency surrounding the gender gap. If we view the statistic another way, 17% of top universities may now be run by women, but 83% a consequently run by men. Half of students may now be female, but in the rarefied upper echelons there is still a very long way to go.


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