How can Universities and Research Institutions hire more female leaders? 8 Mar 2021

In conversation with Dr Sinead Gibney, Managing Partner, Ireland & Joint Managing Partner Europe and Dr Graham Little, Partner & Head, Global Research Leadership

“Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women”[1]. That is the verdict of the United Nations.

A number of reports from governments, businesses and NGOs paint a similar picture of how women have shouldered much of its social and economic burdens.

This is certainly also true for female researchers. An eye-catching statistic is that 27% of male scholars said lockdown was providing them with more time to research and write. That number is around a third lower for women2.

At Perrett Laver, we know that many higher education and research institutions want to do more to improve gender diversity in their leadership positions. That is why we have developed a series of concrete actions to help address gender imbalance for our clients. Some good work has been done but there is more to do. We sat down with Dr Sinead Gibney and Dr Graham Little to find out what research leaders can do to ensure COVID-19 does not stymie progress. 

Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has had a particular impact on women working in the higher education and research sectors?

SG: Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for women in these sectors. As much as we try to get away from it, women are still the main carers in the home. With schools and offices being closed, female academics have had to juggle a lot over the past year, with some having to sacrifice their academic work as a result.

Do you think that “WFH” will become the new permanent way of working?

SG: Working patterns are changing. They are changing irreversibly. The pandemic has accelerated these trends. Whilst it is true that remote working is not as easy for the research community as it is for those in other sectors, it will be those institutions that can respond with agility and innovation that will succeed.

Leaders must think very carefully about what new working arrangements look like. It is essential to consider the impact that working arrangements might have on workplace equality – both from a negative and positive perspective. For example, might more flexibility in working arrangements make your institution more attractive to female research leaders? 

When looking to hire more women, what advice would you give to Universities and research institutes?

GL: When hiring research leaders, institutions often take comfort in metrics that allow them to  compare candidates. In research leader appointments, this often includes the number of research papers an applicant has published over the last five years.

When we allow decisions to rely on metrics alone, we fail to take into account the totality of the circumstances. That failure often works to the disadvantage of women. For example, if a woman has taken maternity leave, their number of papers published will often be lower than a man of a similar career stage. We can – we must – do better.

The way to overcome this is to really focus on the excellent female candidates you are interviewing and dive deeper to uncover what lies behind the numbers. Try to avoid the temptation to land on a ‘safe choice’ – the time invested in giving each application holistic consideration will mean better decisions and will, ultimately, yield more diverse outcomes.

So, what should these panels be considering when it comes to the merit of a female candidate? 

GL: It’s crucial that they take into account wider responsibilities. There are still too few women in research leadership roles. We emphatically want to change that. However, as a result of the current imbalance, the few women that hold these positions are often stretched very thinly by their institutions. This might include everything from being asked to sit on selection panels through to appearing in promotional materials. Of course, we sympathise with the reasons for this, but we must acknowledge the ways in which it squeezes their time for research. Are you bearing this in mind when evaluating a candidate?

And what should these organisations consider when looking for female candidates?

GL: In general, there is evidence to suggest that organisational fit is a consideration that is given particular weight by female candidates applying for research leadership positions. Thinking about the message organisations are sending is key. Often they will be in a senior role already and will want to be sure the move is the right one for them.

Yet there are still institutions where interview panels are entirely composed of white men. What message does that send to female candidates? In our experience it can sow the seeds of doubt and ultimately can lead to candidates deciding this isn’t the right role for them.

Remember it’s not just the interview panel. Think about your website, your promotional materials and wider collateral – are you showing yourself as the organisation you are aspiring to be?

SG: Ultimately, the only way to achieve balanced representation in research leadership positions is by hiring more women. We know that there will very often be far more male candidates to choose from than female. We also know that there are a range of factors which mean women may be less likely to put themselves forward.

The easy decision in many recruitment processes will be to hire the candidate with the strongest record on paper. But leadership is about leading – we would never have reached the progress we have made on equal representation without people deciding to look beyond metrics, people deciding to consider wider definitions of excellence, and people deciding to give talented women the chance they deserve.

At Perrett Laver, we support our clients through all stages of the process, to encourage them to send the right messages, implement the right mechanisms, and ultimately attract the best talent for the job. This International Women’s Day, we would encourage every leader for recruitment into research leadership roles to reflect this – and make 2021 the year you hire more female leaders.


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