Based on her two decades of experience in universities in the Gulf and the United Kingdom, Yusra Mouzughi, president of Bahrain’s Royal University for Women, recently published an article in a research journal that explores the obstacles to women’s leadership in higher education.
Mouzughi’s article, titled “Reflection on Female Leadership Experience in Higher Education”, was recently published online in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Leadership Studies (JHEPALS). In the article, Mouzughi says that the increasing number of women enrolling in higher education has not yet been reflected in the number of women holding of leadership positions in higher-education institutions and decision-making bodies.
Mouzughi, who was born in Libya, educated in the United Kingdom, and has led universities in the Gulf region, writes from experience. She has led Bahrain’s Royal University for Women since May 2021 and previously served as vice chancellor of Oman’s Muscat University, where she was the first female head of a university in the sultanate.
“Through the experience of working in both the U.K. and the Gulf, I have observed different versions of the same reality—a reality where women have to constantly re-affirm their credibility, justifying their presence at meetings, conferences and leadership venues.”Yusra Mouzughi, president of Bahrain’s Royal University for Women
She also has years of experience as a faculty member at the School of Business at Liverpool John Moores University, where she earned her doctorate.
Causes of Inequality in Higher Education
Mouzughi attributes the underrepresentation of women in higher education leadership to several factors, including career-track interruptions, the need to tend to family duties, and exclusion from social activities.
“Through the experience of working in both the U.K. and the Gulf, I have observed different versions of the same reality—a reality where women have to constantly re-affirm their credibility, justifying their presence at meetings, conferences and leadership venues,” she writes.
She also notes that the path for career advancement is less direct for women than for men.
In the United Kingdom, she writes, “there is a trend for young male career academics to work their way up to administrative or academic leadership positions in an almost linear pattern,” she writes.
For women, however, the pattern tends to be non-linear. They often must accommodate family and child-care responsibilities, “which leads to bursts of academic/research/self-development activity depending on the availability of time and/or access to care.” As a result, she writes, many female academics end up “being ‘stuck’ in mid-academic ladder positions,” while their male colleagues move up to leadership posts.
Women face similar barriers in the Arab region, Mouzughi says, including social exclusion from the “boys’ clubs” where decisions about higher education policy are made.
Another factor she cites for the scarcity of female leaders in Arab higher education is the relatively recent history of these institutions, especially those in the Gulf region, where many universities are less than 50 years old.
“Women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions is linked to several barriers, such as the social factor, the need to balance between family and work duties, and institutional culture in some organisations where stereotypes and gender biases prevail.”Narimane Hadj Hamou, founder and chief executive of the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions (CLICKS)
She acknowledges that it will take time to develop programmes to address the gap in female representation in senior positions at Arab universities, and for these programmes to mature and achieve the desired results.
“The lack of obvious role modelling further compounds the issue,” she writes.
Multiple Barriers for Women
Narimane Hadj Hamou, founder and chief executive of the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions (CLICKS), agrees that cultural factors contribute to holding back women’s advancement.
“Women’s underrepresentation in leadership positions is linked to several barriers, such as the social factor, the need to balance between family and work duties, and institutional culture in some organisations where stereotypes and gender biases prevail,” she told Al-Fanar Media. “In addition, women have limited networks of contacts when they search for academic job opportunities.”
She also perceives a difference between the motives of women and men to hold leadership positions. Women are more likely to feel generally satisfied with their teaching or research jobs as means of change and contribution in society, she said, whereas men are attracted to leadership positions in order to gain power and influence.
Hadj Hamou, an Algerian-American, worked for about 20 years in Arab universities before founding CLICKS, which focuses on designing educational policies for universities and training Arab academics in advanced teaching methods.
She recommends establishing networks and forums to bring together female higher education leaders to exchange experiences and support each other, in addition to providing professional development opportunities for women leaders to help identify and overcome the challenges hindering women’s leadership in higher education.
Reem Alrudainy, a professor of Islamic history at Kuwait University’s Faculty of Arts, believes that manipulations in the application of laws for societal and discriminatory reasons could be part of the explanation for women’s underrepresentation in academic leadership positions.
Alrudainy established the Women’s and Gender Studies Research Unit at Kuwait university, the first of its kind in the Gulf states, three years ago. She told Al-Fanar Media that the key to solving the challenges facing women is to build a solid foundation of strong leadership skills, resilience, and awareness of existing challenges and biases.
“Female academies must acquire the necessary skills to overcome challenges in this regard,” she said. “This can be achieved through the support Arab higher education institutions for women’s leadership, by designing and providing a set of training programs directed at this end.”
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