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When will Hong Kong get its first woman university vice-chancellor?

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CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong


Katherine Forestier says Hong Kong should be embarrassed by the findings of too few women in academic research and senior management. This can change with an effort to promote an interest in research and open the top jobs to capable women candidates


Hong Kong, with its female chief executive, bureau chiefs, senior judges and business leaders, seems to be a place where women can thrive in leadership roles. 

One would expect this to be the case in universities. These are, after all, supposed to be the bastions of education, enlightenment and social innovation. However, the University Grants Committee (UGC) data published by the Post this week shows this is not so. Women are woefully under-represented in senior positions in these institutions, and even in the junior ranks.

Hong Kong has no excuses. Unlike in many other regions, women can get on with their professional careers more readily, and do so in many fields, partly because of the generous help other women give them in raising their children, and the family support networks they can draw on.

And the pipeline is there. In international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), Hong Kong girls have on average outperformed boys in science and do almost equally well in maths, at aged 15. They then go on to win the bulk of undergraduate places, 53.9 per cent in 2017/18, as well as the UGC-funded master’s places, at 62.9 per cent.

Yet, after that, women give up that lead, holding back from taking up research postgraduate places – 41.9 per cent are women – and then junior academic posts, accounting for just 33.7 per cent. Moreover, very few of those female research students are from Hong Kong – just 527, or 18 per cent of the total number of women on publicly funded programmes in 2017/18.

Our universities, too, fall behind on women’s participation in higher education leadership. The UGC data shows just 18.8 per cent of senior academic staff are women, with not a single one in the top leadership position. Contrast that with the global picture: among the top 200 universities, as ranked by Times Higher Education, 17 per cent are led by a woman.

In the UK, top universities such as Cambridge and Oxford have had women vice-chancellors, and 23 per cent of all institutions are now female-led. Female academic staff also account for 45.3 per cent of the total, a much higher proportion than in Hong Kong. Even so, the Equality Challenge Unit that promotes equity in higher education is concerned that the proportion is not higher.

Women’s failure to make inroads in more senior academic jobs is not unique to Hong Kong. In some of these places, there have been initiatives to address the problem. For example, the British Council organised the Women in Higher Education Leadership programme, bringing together women and men from around the world to share experiences, understand the issues, and advocate for change.

The Manifesto for Change agreed at the 2013 Going Global conference in Dubai was enthusiastically welcomed by the participants. The manifesto demanded that institutions be held to account on their gender equity in university rankings and quality indicators. The manifesto also called for a commitment to invest in women; greater transparency about the representation of women, including in research; and further international data gathering and research to find out what holds women back, and what enables their success.

It was really heartening that Times Higher Education responded almost immediately by adding gender equity to its global rankings. And some societies are now doing more to include equity and diversity issues in their quality indicators.

The UK’s 2021 Research Excellence Framework exercise, which determines research funding, includes, for the first time, an Equality Impact Assessment. Its “research environment” reports must make reference to the percentage of academic staff by gender, race and disability, and whether the institution has achieved the prestigious Athena SWAN awards for enabling women’s success in science research.

In Hong Kong, there are no system-wide initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter, or an Equality Challenge Unit pushing for change. The UGC’s sector-wide performance measures make no reference to equity and diversity, among staff or students. This contrasts with the concern to promote internationalisation, both at the strategic planning level and in university activities.

Universities across Hong Kong are now preparing for the Research Assessment Exercise 2020. Again, gender equity and diversity do not feature in any of the criteria for assessment.

Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong celebrate their graduation. Hong Kong universities could be a beacon for gender equity and diversity in the region. Photo: David Wong

This exercise is closely modelled on the UK’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework exercise. It has followed the UK in assessing, for the first time, the “impact” of research on the wider society. However, looking at the 2021 edition of the UK exercise, one wonders whether the moment is approaching when Hong Kong will part company from UK practices, because issues such as diversity and equity are just so far off the radar in Hong Kong higher education.

Hong Kong should not blindly follow the UK in its assessment processes. However, the latest UGC figures are a wake-up call. Universities and wider society should be reflecting on why women are not entering academia and progressing in adequate numbers – whether that be related to their relative lack of representation in science subjects that dominate university research agendas and vice-chancellor appointment preferences; the pressures women face in juggling their career and home lives; or chauvinistic cultures that corral women in lower positions and administrative posts.

Hong Kong universities could be a beacon on gender equity and diversity in the region, if they put these on the agenda, including in their quality assessment and planning exercises, and do much more to promote cultures that are genuinely inclusive, at all levels.

It is good that in some Hong Kong universities, women are forming groups to promote female interest in research and to address some of the barriers they face, and some institutions say they take note of gender in their recruitment.

There are women academics with the talent, seniority and leadership skills waiting in the wings for the top university jobs. It will be a travesty if they continue to be passed over.

Dr Katherine Forestier is adjunct assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, Department of International Education and Lifelong Learning, and led the British Council’s WHEL programme, 2011-2013

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