The study findings and our conclusions have provided the template for our framework (Figure 1
). These study findings (summarized in Table 3
) emerged from a thematic analysis of the data described above and these seven overarching themes formed the basis for the study conclusions and hence provide the template for our framework (Figure 1
). In addition we undertook a mapping exercise through which we situated Broadbridge and Simpson’s themes within this template to illustrate the degree to which these build upon and develop Broadbridge and Simpson’s review. Taken together these form a composite framework. Table 4
explains the mapping process and the subsequent discussion section further develops and elaborates this table through our empirical data.
So, what new insights does this research offer? Does it, in the words of the 7th theme, have the potential to make a difference? We share Broadbridge and Simpson’s [1
] sentiment that only through disseminating key debates are we able to frame and reflect developments in the field. Framing and reflecting is central to this paper—reflecting on the significance of our empirical findings within the emerging conceptual framework we have presented for consideration. In addition to being cognisant of the parameters of the framework we also seek to be mindful of the wider context in which our framework is situated. Accordingly, it may be useful to consider the cultural and academic context of our readership. Currently, themes of plurality abound in the domain of leadership and management research: notwithstanding the current popularity of this concept, it is worth asking what is ‘plurality’ and why is it capturing the attention of scholars? Maybe some clues are to be found in two key domains of academic activity: conference design and journal publications. With regard to the former, plurality has inspired the titles of two recent conferences, one in management and one in HE. The title of the BAM 2015 conference was ‘The Value of Pluralism in Advancing Management Research Education and Practice’ and the title of the 2014 SRHE conference was ‘Inspiring future generations; embracing plurality and difference in HE’. A close reading of the two conference remits suggests that the concept of plurality not only signifies its potential to enrich leadership and management research and to reconfigure HE provision for multiple stakeholders, but is also indicative of a challenging dynamic between plurality and diversity on the one hand and homogeneity and inclusivity on the other. In terms of balancing the dynamic, we believe it is important to encourage diversity in modes of understanding and research practice while ensuring that inclusivity is met by safeguarding equity of opportunity rather than yielding to pressure of homogenization.
With regard to the second domain—journal publications—we observe that at the time of writing this paper one of the popular articles on British Journal of Management is ‘The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over-represented in precarious leadership positions’ [68
]. Given that this paper is over a decade old, this finding is perhaps on one level unremarkable. However, that this article continues to retain a high profile a decade later perhaps indicates that there is something about the issue of gender diversity in leadership that has not been resolved, and which remains very much at the forefront of debates in leadership and management. Our question at this juncture is what can consideration of plurality offer to the advancement of gender diversity? The think crisis-think female gendered expectation figured in the ‘glass cliff’ paper applies a metaphorical strait jacket to women’s careers and reputation as leaders. The following discussion, with recourse to our empirical findings and conceptual framework, explores the (unresolved) questions posed by Broadbridge and Simpson in their conclusions: how gender hierarchies are becoming more entrenched and whether gender discrimination is really a thing of the past.
7.1. Challenges of Gender Denial, and Gendered Hierarchies Becoming More (Rather than Less) Entrenched
Broadbridge and Simpson [1
] identify continuing challenges in the form of ‘gender denial’ which is cultivated by processes of concealment, a natural sequel of which is the entrenchment of gendered hierarchies. Our findings emphasize that the absence or even blatant disregard of plurality in HE institutions has been a key player in this process. Our research highlighted two major barriers to female advancement within senior leadership roles in HE: societal (cultural) and institutional barriers.
Together these constitute a form of ‘gender denial’ and are characterised by the trademark side-lining of gender as an issue. Societal (or cultural barriers) are essentially covert in nature; a notable example surfacing in our data is the ‘gendering of excellence’ whereby merit is defined and rewarded against masculine norms of behaviour. This phenomenon has been more widely noted internationally with documented efforts to deconstruct the criteria of academic excellence [22
]. The specific issue of promotions criteria is one such illustration of the damage that can occur when plurality does not inform practice, leading to unitary cultural biases becoming entrenched, internalised and adopted as default, normative practice. Promotions criteria were observed, across all three institutions, as being predominantly male centric and being driven by a number of unconscious biases lending empirical support to the notion that such forms of gendered hierarchies are becoming more entrenched, facilitated by the ‘discourse of meritocracy and choice’ [1
]. As respondent Yasmin indicates, the conflation of quantitative metrics with inherent value illustrates that the challenge of contesting this patriarchal/normatively masculine vision of excellence involves reintroducing collaborativeness into models of excellence:
‘And I think the things that are valued are the things that are easily measured. And it’s easy to measure grant income, it’s less easy to measure your contribution to making your research team work well, your contribution to running projects well’
(Yasmin, University Z)
In the plenary session of the dissemination seminar, there was a highly constructive and creative recommendation for a ‘rethinking of excellence’ programme, which would involve expanding and developing the agreed characteristics of reward and recognition to effect a change to promotions criteria and language. It was recognised that in order for any type of change to be effected in these areas transparency in decision and policy-making was required at institutional level. Karatas-Ozkan and Chell [33
] show how at the meso and macro organisational levels our academic institutions ‘perpetuate practices that have significant bearings on academic career development’ (p. 121). However, institutional transparency alone does not adequately address the primacy of the covert processes played out in promotions procedures [54
]. What is needed is a shift in emphasis from addressing overt processes (representation of genders on a promotions panel) to uncover more covert processes such as addressing the mechanisms through which applications are assessed.
The salience of covert processes was a recurrent underpinning feature of many of our study themes. For example at the heart of the ‘Work-life-family balance conundrum’ is a collective buy in to discourse of merit and choice, aptly termed a key challenge in that it is underpinned by a collective denial:
‘I think probably one of the main things about that is that it’s really hard to compare CVs when people have had time out. So if you have time out because of maternity leave or leaves, you shouldn’t—I really don’t think you should expect to move at the same rate’.
(Sue, University Y)
Such an approach within a rethinking of excellence resonates well with teasing out gendered hierarchies and ‘revealing’ hidden processes of concealment within dominant discourses [1
]. While it is possible to characterize overt processes as equitable and transparent, thereby supporting institutional discourses of fairness and meritocracy, the more covert processes (albeit challenging to detect) afford opportunities to effect culture change and resist the dominant discourses that preserve gender inequality. Indeed, the success of initiatives relating to positive practice and positive work culture (study theme 5) can be undermined by deeply held cultural beliefs ingrained in the institutional consciousness. Take for example the popular ‘core hours’ policy currently championed by Athena Swan initiatives across the UK as a beacon of excellent practice:
‘REF doesn’t say, “Did you do that work between nine to five?” It says, “Did you do that work?” So you cannot change that ‘.
(Yvonne, University Z)
This quote is particularly revealing of the challenge involved in implementing gender equality initiatives (core hours) in the face of institutional culture, which in this case is depicted as an immoveable entity (‘you cannot change that’). Also interesting is how the conundrum of remasculinisation is being played out through the heroic focus on REF driven metrics and targets around the clock.
Gender mainstreaming and integrating gender equality into all processes is fundamental [21
]. Our respondents display an astute awareness of such covert aspects and how they underwrite institutional discourses of meritocracy:
‘I suppose that if there’s an element of gender to it then I would say it’s probably in the way in which promotions, and I’m not just talking about academia here, now they favour a certain attitude to work, they favour a certain tone and a certain confidence that you find more regularly amongst male colleagues’.
(Lynn, University X)
Participants engaged in the final dissemination seminar considered ways in which the discourse of promotion is in itself self-promotional and individualistic rather than team based—‘I did’ rather than ‘we did’ and the degree to which the reluctance to self-promote may be explained by a ‘cultural mismatch’ between the act of self-promoting and some of the ways in which female academics are more typically socialised.
The rising popularity of gender bias awareness or unconscious bias training is gathering purchase in HE [69
] and surfaces across interview and seminar data. Indeed such awareness training may well increase opportunities to rethink excellence programmes and provide a fitting antidote to the processes of concealment that feed gender denial. Additionally, the increasing demand for such awareness training across academic institutions perhaps signifies a considered and conscious response to the ‘entrenchment’ of gendered hierarchies. As such, our empirical data and review of the HE context suggests that while gender denial and gendered hierarchies still constitute a challenge (as Broadbridge and Simpson attest), the move on an institutional level towards gender awareness training could prefigure an additional feature of gender and management/leadership research that is rising in prominence—namely challenging hegemonic discourses and cultural practices through a focus on unconscious bias rather than operational procedures. It may be premature and overly optimistic speculation to hope that this heralds a shifting of the tectonic plates.
We must nevertheless acknowledge that our data currently indicate that the more ‘overt’ barriers relating to institutional practices and behaviours continue to be highly influential in preserving gender inequality, such as the dominance of the self-application route in promotion procedures and the lack of gender diversity on promotion panels. A further interesting barrier highlighted above and in need of interrogation is transparency, which is perhaps most critical in tackling these more overt barriers. Lack of transparency is identified in our study as a significant threat to equality which applies to all aspects of institutional practice (data, processes, procedures) which in turn infiltrates the culture. In our research, women report the prevalence of grace and favour appointments and not ‘knowing the rules’ of the game as they pertained to senior leadership let alone knowing ‘how to play’ the game’
Indeed our study theme ‘Career path—negotiating the trajectory’ was imbued with instances of hidden rules, opacity and shifting sands with respect to how key decisions were made, decisions which impacted individuals’ advancement within their institution:
“The roles above head of department, there is no route…there is no transparency…almost like a secret society which you might be let into, I’ve no idea how to get into it.”
(Lana, University X)
The quote above attests to the continued influence of secretive gendered cultures in institutional practice, leading to what Broadbridge and Simpson (p. 476) [1
] described as ‘the numerical dominance of men in senior positions’. However, ’numerical dominance’ leads to cultural hegemony whereby the patriarchal vision of reality continues to influence institutional consciousness. Conversely, reversing such numerical dominance via the establishment of ‘critical mass’ is conceptualized by one respondent as a strategy for combatting patriarchal hegemony and providing an arena for women to raise tensions as legitimate focus for consideration, unencumbered by their minority group status:
‘We do need more women representation in terms of numbers at certain levels I think to help overcome that tension. Because that leads to a greater understanding of what the issues are. I think one of the problems is that if you’re in a minority any tensions you might be facing are not considered’.
(Lisa, University X)
For this reason, it could be argued that increasing transparency in institutional practices would be a fitting solution to this barrier. However an interesting paradox occurs when some respondents had clearly benefitted from the ‘tap on the shoulder’:
‘When I first became head of department—so this was 2008 I think—the Vice-Chancellor said to me, “You could be a PVC.” And I just went, “Yeah, fine.” And walked away. He didn’t have to say that, and maybe he says it to everybody, I don’t know. But just to plant that seed in somebody’s mind. And that’s what we can do for everyone. We encourage everybody, whether they’re male or female, saying you can do this, don’t be afraid’.
(Sandy, University Y)
However, there were other seemingly contradictory accounts that suggest this practice of somewhat covert patronage leads to further prolonging the absence of women, as respondent Lucy argues: ‘But it means you’re completely invisible’ (Lucy, University X). The quandary that presents itself is as follows: when does a supportive intervention focussed on the individual (talent spotting, championing and developing academic women) become a non-equitable behaviour that feeds into the idea that certain women (and men) need to be coaxed out of a fearful, unassertive position into assuming the mantle of senior leadership? Perhaps what is indicated is that interventions focussed on the individual need to acknowledge this tension. Aside from the practice of patronage/sponsorship there are other entrenched traditions within institutions such as population of committees by ex-officio roles and the practice of self-nomination which can perpetuate masculine cultures of leadership (‘And it seems to me that men are more likely to self-nominate for positions or recognition’, University X, Lana) and leave women feeling marginalized, silenced and excluded from these roles.
To summarise both overt and covert barriers can lead to entrenchment of gendered hierarchies and both need addressing but by different mechanisms such that fixing universities rather than fixing women is gaining traction [27
]. Karatas-Ozkan and Chell’s [33
] use of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and field is illuminating as they conclude their ‘interrelations demonstrate the complex nature of gender inequalities’ (p120). This conclusion lends significant support to and further extends Broadbridge and Simpsons’ [1
] assertion that gender denial, shored up by the architecture of entrenched gendered discourses continues to be a powerful force. We proffer an additional feature to be considered for future debates: in order to fully address entrenchment we need to critically engage with the thorny issue of the instances when women themselves report benefitting from those non-equitable practices (such as the tap on the shoulder) which perpetuate inequality and to closely interrogate such narratives. A central message emerging here is that dealing with the ‘grey spaces’ and tensions in women’s narratives rather than clear cut binaries will be an enduring challenge in the field.
7.2. Challenge Notion that Gender Discrimination Is a ‘Thing of the Past’
Given the legacy of Broadbridge and Simpson’s overview of the preceding 25 years, it is worth exploring what are some of the shifting priorities in the intervening years since publication of their work. Of the four key challenges they highlight, our research most clearly addresses the ‘problem of gender has been solved’ and the ‘discourse of meritocracy and choice’. Both these notions perpetuate the view that gender discrimination is now outmoded—as very much a phenomenon of earlier eras and no longer a theme of our times. Our research data reveal that promotion and recruitment processes encourage discourses of meritocracy and choice by way of presumed ‘objective criteria’ which effectively bypass deeper cultural prejudices. The reality is that academic women still find it harder to access the prestige required for promotion beyond mid-career [69
]. Our research findings expose many tensions and contradictions around personal responsibility for individuals which in turn ties into debates as to whether interventions need to be targeted at the institution or the individual. There is significant variation in the degree to which respondents locate the problem in the institution or in the individual. So while the data indicate selected support for the notion that ‘the problem of gender has been solved’ with some respondents believing that women have the power to shape their own destiny and overcome obstacles; there is also widespread awareness of how the construct of personal choice continues to be underwritten by gendered power relations [70
]. If we are to mount a significant challenge to gender discrimination and the entrenched practices that underwrite it, we need to critically and reflexively engage with the tensions and anomalies that surface in women’s narratives.
This vexed question of personal choice resonates well with the body of literature on gendered organisational cultures. As pessimistically observed by Cockburn [71
] and Maddock and Parkin [72
] these cultures are highly resilient to equality initiatives and self-perpetuate a model of leadership that is masculine, continuing the debate of think leaders, think male [58
]. The long term effect of such cultural environments can lead to women feeling ostracised [26
] and ultimately disengaged from leadership roles – disengagement which subsequently becomes formulated as personal choice. This cycle perpetuates the discourse of meritocracy and ultimately supports a denial of gender discrimination which impacts negatively on female representation in senior management roles. Embracing plurality in styles of leadership is a significant challenge given our findings that institutional and cultural norms can become internalised and remain undetected. As Lana (University X) posits, a focus on ‘fixing’ the overt features such as numbers (of women in leadership roles) belies the continued influence of internalized norms and values and stymies the potential of plurality to inform future configurations of leadership. In this respect, if we are to truly in the words of our fourth study theme, challenge ways of knowing, the focus should be not merely on the gender of the leader but on the impact of performing masculine styles of leadership whether by women or men.
‘So what we don’t want is to fix the issue by putting in a Margaret Thatcher who will simply be a clone of the others but in a slightly different suit. So it’s embracing different styles of leadership’.
(Lana, University X)
A solution, we suggest, is to embrace the diversity of voices, including those that lend support to gendered practices in order to interrogate taken for granted concepts such as ‘personal choice’. We acknowledge that this may be an uncomfortable experience, and to be aware of any temptation to iron out tensions and anomalies that we encounter in women’s narratives.