Are European universities led by raven mothers or princesses?

6 May 2022

I recently participated in a meeting for women vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors from around fifty other European universities. The EWORA network, European Women Rectors Association, has existed for about fifteen years with the purpose of strengthening gender equality in higher education and research in Europe and beyond.

A roundtable discussion I participated in covered obstacles and conditions for women in European university management positions. Denmark currently has one woman vice-chancellor. Poland has two women in university management positions, both as deputy vice-chancellors. In Estonia, the number of women in university management positions has quadrupled in the last year alone – from one to four women deputy vice-chancellors. That is hardly anything to brag about. In comparison to those numbers, Sweden has actually come a long way, with women in the management of nearly all universities.

Group photo, European Women Rectors Association

Photo: European Women Rectors Association

What is often toughest to tackle is the unaware prejudice. For example, the most noble universities in Europe are filled with fabulous portraits of former vice-chancellors, cardinals, scientists, philosophers and innovators. The physical environment sends clear signals that managerial positions should be held by men. Women role models are still missing in far too many contexts. And progress is slow.

Several of my women vice-chancellor colleagues testify to 'the streetlight effect' – meaning that election committees and their equivalents only look for candidates where they are used to finding them. My colleagues also mention how women and men candidates – even today – are asked different questions in their interviews: men get to account for their visions and ideas for the future, whereas women are asked about family.

Heidi Hansson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of education

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

A number of scientific studies of women's leadership identify 'the confidence gap' as an important reason for why women hesitate before accepting a leadership role. There is a risk that such studies are turned into eternal truths about human characteristics – particularly in relation to biological sex. In brief, the studies show that women are rated higher than men in terms of competencies, but generally lower when it comes to self-esteem. Just like the portraits found on university walls, this conveys stereotypical conceptions of leaders.

In Austria, the concept Rabenmutter (raven mother) is used about women who choose to work when they are mothers of small children, and overall about successful business women. Other countries talk about 'the big sister complex' or 'princess and the pea behaviour'. To be strong and driven is a problem, but to be sensitive and empathic is also a problem. There are so many contexts in academia where it seems like women – on all levels – are caught in a double bind.

The negative stereotypes, just like the lack of role models, made some of my European colleagues draw the conclusion that leadership training exclusive to women is a necessity. This is where our opinions differ, most likely due to our differing experiences. Programmes specific to women risk to enforce the image that the lack of women in leadership positions is a problem for women alone. But we do not work in single-sex environments.

Gender inequality is a societal problem and a question of quality that we need to work on together. This means that we need to find what is neither male- nor female-coded leadership, but instead a human way to lead.

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