Women continue to be under-represented in academic decision-making in Europe. This is particularly apparent when considering the proportion of female heads of institutions in the higher education sector and the proportion of female heads of universities [1
]. The same male domination has been observed world-wide [2
]. The low proportion of female heads of higher education institutions is a key indicator of the gender inequality that still permeates higher education, and it has received attention on both national and international policy level [1
]. There is also, by now, an extensive body of empirical research investigating women’s absence from senior academic decision-making positions. Multiple structural and cultural institutional barriers to women’s advancement in academic leadership have been identified [5
]. One of the main barriers to the advancement of women in academic leadership are male informal networks and men’s homosociability [6
]. Another explanation to women’s absence from academic leadership is the gendered division of labor, resulting in the disproportionate amount of time women spend on family, child care, and housework [8
]. This is problematic because the career model in higher education is based on a male norm, which rewards full-time devotion, early achievements, non-attachments outside of academia, and identification with science [9
The recruitment and appointment processes in higher education have attracted particular interest from feminist researchers [12
]. Previous studies have highlighted how these processes, believed to be based on meritocratic principles, are in fact gendered, permeated by direct and indirect discrimination towards women [15
]. The existence of implicit bias in assessments and evaluations of candidates for senior leadership positions has also been exposed [12
]. Research has revealed that appointment and promotion committees and recruitment consultants stereotype women to have certain leadership skills, while lacking others, and can question women’s ability to act in accordance with the expectations on an academic leader, which include images of a strong and charismatic masculine leadership style [16
]. Previous research from for example the US has described the leadership ideal in the US higher education with reference to discursive formations such as the statesman, the warrior, the tyrant, the hero, the expert, and the negotiator, which are all traditional masculine positions [13
]. Similar references to what can be interpreted as masculine leadership ideals appear in a report about the Swedish higher education, where Vice-Chancellors are described as traditionally being regarded as “lonely and strong leader,” “charismatic,” “magnificent,” and “the Vice Chancellor is king!” [14
] (pp. 14–17). The result has been that women are overlooked as potential academic leaders, while men experience a male bonus in these processes [2
]. In addition, studies have revealed how requirements and standards in the recruitment process can be purposely vague and lack transparency in order to maintain the influence of gender-bias, i.e., underlying assumptions and ideas about women and men, femininity and masculinity [19
]. If there is a more detailed and elaborate recruitment profile envisioned for a professorship, it has commonly and routinely been molded to attract, and favor, a male candidate who is considered to be particularly talented [16
Recruitment and appointment processes, thus, constitute barriers to women’s careers in higher education, and they need to be explored, highlighted, and scrutinized. Despite the large body of previous literature investigating women’s careers in academia, we still know little about how academic leadership ideals are produced and reproduced in these recruitment and appointment processes, and if and how academic ideals are gendered. The aim of this article is to investigate the leadership ideals constructed in job advertisements for Vice-Chancellors at Swedish higher education institutions. The article adopts a critical gender perspective, which means that the leadership ideals are analyzed in relation to cultural stereotypes about female and male managers and feminine and masculine leadership. Looking at these job advertisements through a gendered lens, the article investigates to what extent they reflect and reproduce these gendered stereotypes.
Analyzing job advertisements for senior leadership positions entails identifying ideals associated with superior leadership performance [21
]. In addition, analyses of job advertisements can illustrate trends and changes over time regarding how the ideal candidate is described [22
]. Leadership ideals reflect contemporary images of what constitute efficient and superior leadership and can shift due to the arrival of new theories about popular leadership styles [23
]. They are also contextually dependent and vary between organizations due to culture, work arrangements, power relations, and decision-making routines [25
Leadership ideals define the skills, traits, qualifications, experiences, and behaviors that characterize the successful, efficient, and good leader [21
]. They serve as a benchmark for leader assessment and selection and become essential in the recruitment of managers [27
]. Although we know little about how academic ideals are gendered, what constitutes efficient academic leadership has attracted a great deal of interest internationally. This previous research highlights how academic leadership ideals are characterized by a context permeated by meritocracy and collegiality, meaning that the members of the faculty traditionally have elected the academic managers based on scholarly reputation rather than leadership experience or skills [28
]. Full professorship and academic legitimacy has therefore generally been considered a prerequisite for the highest academic leadership positions [30
]. According to previous research, the successful academic leader is someone who has a clear sense of direction/strategic vision; is considerate, trustworthy, and has personal integrity; encourages open communication; communicates well about the direction the department is going; and creates a positive/collegial work atmosphere [32
]. A credible academic leader must also be able to influence, direct and guide peers, stimulate creativity of others, encourage risk-taking, and develop novel solutions [33
]. Studies of presidential effectiveness in the US higher education found that having exceptional communicative skills, developing and achieving visions, and maintaining good relationships with stakeholder was not enough for a successful university president [35
]. The ability to seek and attract resources was also necessary to enhance the academic programs and support the infrastructure needed [36
Feminist leadership research, focusing on the private sector and business management, has revealed that certain images and traits of leaders are strongly associated with men and masculinity, while others are associated with women and femininity [37
]. The behaviors, traits, and skills expected of a leader, in accordance with a traditional leadership ideal, have been congruent with expectations of men’s agentic behavior. Agentic behavioral traits are usually defined as denoting, for example, ambition, assertion, control, and independence (see left side of Table 1
, below) [23
]. These are personal characteristics and skills that women stereotypically are assumed to possess to a lesser degree than men [38
]. The result of these prejudices, stereotypes, and expectations is the association between masculinity and traditional leader roles, an association sometimes condensed in the expression “think manager-think male” [39
]. The association between men and traditional leadership ideals means that men still often seem self-evident as leaders, while women are overlooked and not identified as effective leaders by others [40
]. Women leaders are instead expected to display communal behavior [44
]. Communal behavior involves focusing the needs of others and the common good, which is manifested, for example, in a behavior that is oriented toward helping and supporting others (see right side of Table 1
, below) [23
]. The distinction between agentic and communal behavior follows a dichotomous gender logic which produces two different gendered leadership ideals. Although social and cultural stereotypes such as these are one-sided and exaggerated, they continue to influence our society and guide our behavior. To what extent they do so is, however, an empirical question to be investigated. Gender stereotypes are, for example, prevalent in Ireland, where gender stereotypes in senior management in higher education often are taken for granted. In comparison, in the Swedish higher education, gender stereotypes in senior management positions are challenged by feminist values and a gender balance in numbers and replaced by a gender-neutral discourse [46
The type of leadership style described by the traits to the left in Table 1
is sometimes referred to as a transactional leadership style, which involves reward behavior and an exchange relationship between leaders and followers where the leader provides guidance, goals, directions, and also punishments [49
]. Leadership ideals are, as already mentioned above, contextually dependent and changeable. The traditional, authoritarian, transactional, leadership ideal has become less and less popular, although it still constitutes a central image of power and influence. Recent research suggests that when contemporary organizations become less hierarchical, more flexible, team oriented and participative, the criteria and qualities of successful and ideal leadership change [51
]. The transactional leadership style has therefore been challenged by the transformational leadership style, which favors an ideal where the leader relates to others as equals, is sensitive and aware of the effects of leadership on others, has a working style that empowers and builds teams, and promotes co-operation, mentoring, and dialogue [52
]. The transformational leadership style has been associated with women because it incorporates more traits and qualities traditionally associated with femininity and women, sometimes referred to as communal [17
] (see the right column in Table 1
A shift from a transactional toward a transformational leadership ideal could result in a more suitable fit for women as leaders and increased recruitment of women to leadership positions [50
]. It could also lead to a more collaborative academic culture that is less permeated by dominant conversational techniques and bullying [54
]. Some studies have even proposed that women could be more suitable for leadership positions in higher education than men [57
]. These studies have argued that the demands on academic leaders have changed and that there is now an increasing focus on “soft” leadership tasks, emotional management, and team work [59
]. Women are thus perceived as potentially making a positive contribution to university decision-making [61
2. Background: The Swedish Case Study
This article makes a contribution to the existing body of research by extending our knowledge about academic leadership ideals to the Swedish higher education sector, where these issues have remained largely unexplored.
The Swedish higher education system is relatively small, encompassing a total of 48 higher education institutions of very different character and with different status [63
]. The population selected for the present study is constituted by 27 of the largest and oldest higher education institutions (see Appendix A
). Most of these are public institutions, accountable to the Swedish Government, and entitled to award first, second- and third-cycle qualifications. The selection of population in the present study follows Engwall [64
] in that it excludes some institutions due to their character—the college of physical education, the defense college, eight colleges of performing arts—and some also due to their size—small schools for nursing, psychotherapy, and theology. It is important to note, however, that the selection of 27 higher education institutions should not be interpreted as indicating that these 27 are a homogenous group of institutions. As previous research has highlighted, they are of different sizes and spread out geographically in very different communities and also have different disciplinary profiles [65
]. It is, however, considered beyond the scope of the analysis in this article to take all these aspects into account.
In Sweden, Vice-Chancellors are appointed to a six-year term after which they can be re-elected twice for two consecutive three-year periods. Although the Swedish government formally appoints the Vice-Chancellor (as the head of a government agency), the appointment is always done on the basis of a proposal from the board of governors of the higher education institutions. The university board is also in control of the process of identifying the Vice-Chancellor candidate proposed to the Swedish government. The Vice-Chancellor leads the institution together with one or more Pro Vice-Chancellors, one who act as deputy to serve instead of the Vice-Chancellor when he or she is not on duty, while the other Pro Vice-Chancellors can have responsibilities for specific areas, for example internationalization, equality and diversity or graduate education. The Pro Vice-Chancellors are appointed by the board of governors at the higher education organisation but often on the recommendation of the new Vice-Chancellor, who thus can put together his or her own leadership team. The newly appointed Vice-Chancellor is rarely supposed to “fit into” an already existing leadership team. Instead, these top positions are all replaced at the same time in order to ensure that a more profound change of governance occurs [59
The Vice-Chancellor position in higher education has, traditionally, been male-dominated in Sweden [63
]. The proportion of women Vice-Chancellors at the 27 higher education institutions was only 7 per cent in 1990. During the last two decades, however, the number of women has continued to increase, and Sweden has become one of the countries in Europe with the highest percentage of women Vice-Chancellors [67
]. Women increased among the Vice-Chancellors at the 27 institutions, and in 2015, they constituted 59 per cent. In 2018 the proportion of women, however, fell to 33 per cent (see Table 2
The increase in female Vice-Chancellors between 1990–2015 has been explained by different factors, such as women acting as change agents, HEIs becoming accountable to the Swedish government for including women candidates in the recruitment processes, and the transformation of the higher education sector [46
]. Engwall explains the increasing recruitment of female Vice-Chancellors primarily reflecting a general trend towards equal opportunities for women and men in society and an increase of female students to universities [64
3. Materials and Methods
The material, analyzed in the present study, is constituted by job advertisements and recruitment profiles used in the recruitment and election of Vice-Chancellors over the three decades 1990, 2000, 2010 at the 27 Swedish higher education institutions. During these three decades, a total of 119 Vice-Chancellors were appointed at the 27 higher education institutions. In 85 of these 119 recruitments, i.e., in 71 per cent of the recruitments, it was possible to collect the recruitment profile and/or job advertisement. The majority of the documents were collected directly from the archives of the higher education institutions. However, in 34 of the 119 recruitment processes the specific document, containing the recruitment profile, was not archived by the higher education institution, and these could not be retrieved. The ongoing recruitment processes between 2014–2018 were monitored as part of a research project and the recruitment profiles and job advertisements from those years were collected from online resources, e.g., the webpages of the higher education institutions as they were being published and the searches were in progress.
The job advertisements were analyzed to gain an understanding of the content of the documents and the contextual use of certain words in them [66
]. To achieve this a content analysis approach was adopted [67
]. The content analysis started with identifying the unit for data collection, the unit of meaning and the unit of analysis [71
]. The unit for data collection was constituted by the 85 job advertisements. The unit of meaning was identified as the part of the document that described the ideal candidate and the recruitment profile. The unit of analysis was deductively defined to be words and concepts that described the required, and desired, qualities, traits, skills, knowledge, experiences, background, and behavior of the ideal Vice-Chancellor in accordance with the model for gendered leadership ideals.
After the data had been prepared, it was coded into categories according to the guidelines for focused coding, or so-called directed content analysis [73
]. This is a type of analysis that focuses on a micro level and aims at identifying patterns [74
]. It provides frequency counts and a classification of words with similar meaning or shared similar connotations, and arranges them into fewer content categories [69
]. The classification in this study was based on a fixed categorization matrix that was developed beforehand, based on previous literature and theories on gendered leadership ideals (compiled in Table 1
]. In order to ensure conceptual validity, i.e., that the concepts were operationalized in accordance with theoretical definitions, the selection of codes was based on careful and thorough examination of previous literature and research on leadership and higher education. Notwithstanding, it has to be acknowledged that the final selection of codes, included in the categorization matrix (see Table 1
) could have included other codes and excluded some of the ones finally chosen.
The content of the job advertisements was coded for correspondence with, or exemplification of, the identified categories in the categorization matrix, i.e., as examples of wordings that fit into the masculine leadership ideal or the feminine leadership ideal. The content analysis was thus of deductive character, meaning that the structure of the analysis was operationalized on the basis of previous knowledge about leadership ideals [75
]. The coding was done by hand and based on a thorough and close readings of the job advertisements where every trait and skill, included in the categorization matrix, was coded and notes were taken on the frequency of occurrences of the different concepts.
A second analytical phase commenced after the frequency counts and when the classifications and categorizations were finalized. In this second analytical phase, the latent usage of the words and contents were analyzed. This involved a contextualized interpretation of the content, taking into account the context of the job advertisements. The results of this analytical phase is reported on in the discussion section in this article. There, two contextual aspects are taken into consideration: the year the job advertisements were published, and which higher education institutions published them. This analytical second phase, thus, had a qualitative character and included a subjective interpretation of the content of the analyzed texts through “the systematic classification process of coding and identifying themes or patterns [72
] (p. 1278).
In this section, several different aspects of the analysis will be critically discussed and reflected upon, mainly regarding what claims the article can make.
The aim of this article was not to present results that show that the wordings in the job advertisements influence the outcome of the recruitment process or that there are any causal relationships between the wordings and the appointment of women or men as Vice-Chancellors. Such a statement would be invalid and not take into account the complexity of the recruitment process, where the job advertisement is only a small part. The job advertisements are, however, central in that they reflect and reproduce leadership ideals and are based on the recruitment profiles used throughout the recruitment processes. The job advertisements also reflect the recruitment process per se. The longer job advertisements during the last two decades can be interpreted as reflecting an increasing transparency regarding the appointment of Vice-Chancellors.
No causal relations can thus be established between the more detailed job advertisements and the recruitment of more women to the Vice-Chancellor position. Previous research, however, has emphasized transparency in recruitment processes as an important contributing factor for more gender equal and women-inclusive recruitment [12
]. Transparency in processes “breaks down ‘collegial’ male-dominated traditional gendered patterns, thereby providing openings for women” [82
] (p. 181). Explicitly stating the traits, skills, and qualities included in the recruitment profile ensures a more fair recruitment process and a more equal treatment of all candidates. That the job advertisements during the 1990s were short and lacking of information about the ideal Vice-Chancellor does not indicate that there were no leadership ideals that influenced the recruitment processes. This ideal, however, was not clearly communicated. Detailed and informative job advertisements can also be expected to attract more applicants, as such job advertisements signal to the candidates that the recruitment process is legitimate and sincere instead of an informal and internal affair, where the outcome is already beforehand determined [12
]. Accordingly, there are other dimensions of the recruitment processes that probably have supported a women-inclusive recruitment, besides the inclusion of feminine wordings in the job advertisements.
The wordings in the job advertisements not only reflect the recruitment process in its entirety but also the awareness among the recruitment committees and recruitment firms involved. In some of the documents also acquired from the higher education institutions, the attitudes of people involved in the recruitment process are clearly revealed and expressed. There are, for example, minutes from board meetings and meetings with recruitment committees where the participants clearly state that “it is time that we appoint a woman as Vice-Chancellor.” This also supports the explanation suggested by Engwall [64
] that the increase of women Vice-Chancellors in Swedish higher education can be partly explained by a general trend toward equal opportunities for women and men in society. It is clear that such a trend in some cases also has influenced the recruitment process and perhaps also contributed to more pronounced feminine wordings in the job advertisements.
The results, therefore, do indicate
that the use of feminine wordings, in combination with other change processes, can have a beneficial effect on the outcome and allow for more women to be included in the recruitment process and be appointed to Vice-Chancellor. In this article, this statement can only be supported by the correlation between Table 2
, which illustrates the increase of female Vice-Chancellors at the 27 higher education institutions included in the analysis in this study, and Table 6
, which illustrates the increase of feminine wordings in the job advertisements used to recruitment the Vice-Chancellors during the same time period.
There are also some interesting examples in the data, looking at the wordings in the job advertisements and the results of the recruitment processes, i.e., whether a female or male Vice-Chancellor was appointed. One such example is the recruitment in 1992 of one of the first women to a University Vice-Chancellor position, at Umeå University. The recruitment profile in 1992 includes wordings such as “ability to cooperate,” “has good judgment,” “ability to listen,” “can infuse enthusiasm.” In the following two recruitment processes at this university, men were appointed Vice-Chancellors, first in 1999 and then in 2005. The two job advertisements used then emphasized “very good leadership skills,” “being able to represent the university outwards,” “ability to lead competitive education and research.” Another woman was recruited in 2010 and the recruitment profile was once again distinctly different and included wordings such as: “listens and have a dialogue with students and employees,” “a good listener,” “great ability to create and nurture good relations.”
Another difficulty with a content analysis such as this is the connotation of the concepts. Bennett [18
] notes the difficulties in knowing exactly how the authors of job advertisements define the different concepts, skills and traits. This is a valid argument also in the present study. It is most likely that some of the concepts are used more or less synonymously or with overlapping definitions, for example, the concepts “decisive,” “forceful,” “driven,” and “strong,” here categorized as masculine. The concepts are also used in very different ways and in different contexts in the job advertisements. One example is the trait “committed” or “having commitment” that in some job advertisements was used on its own, to describe someone as being a “committed person.” In other places, it was used to describe the ideal Vice-Chancellor as someone who could create a committed faculty and workforce, which obviously is not the same trait as being “committed as a person.”
Another issue, critical for the reliability and validity of the quantitative focused coding, is related to the definition and contextualization of the concepts that were coded. Using a categorization matrix like this risks reproducing dichotomies and stereotypes about femininity and masculinity [62
]. The analysis, therefore, also needs to acknowledge that the meaning of leadership, just as the meaning of gender, is a socially and culturally situated construction, which is performed, negotiated, and shifting [7
]. It is also important to remember that stereotypical masculinity is not only and necessarily coupled with male bodies. As previous studies show, professional women, female managers, can also be defined according to these ideals [23
]. Instead of reproducing these dichotomies, the use of similar lists and categorizations could perhaps also, ideally, contribute to making the dichotomies visible and questioned instead of taken for granted and unspoken.
Previous research has also revealed how men continue to monopolize powerful status positions in work organizations irrespective of the qualifications associated with the work ideal of that position [83
]. This monopolization and domination is made possible due to male power to define what the “right” and valuable skills are. Work performed by women has accordingly been defined as unqualified and less prestigious. Masculinity can, also in keeping with this logic, change and adapt rather than men giving up an occupation with high status or high pay. Abrahamsson [84
], for example, points to how social competence, as a part of the modern organization, has been learnt by men in Swedish industrial companies and has become a part of the local definition of masculinity, although traditionally linked to women and femininity. According to Abrahamsson, this has been possible through emphasizing men’s skills as intellectual and refined while recognizing women’s corresponding skills as biological and natural traits. This differentiation maintains the distinction between men’s traits, skills and behaviors as more important and qualified than women’s. The gender coding of traits, skills and behaviors can thus change, but the denotation and the nuances of wordings can also change [84
The results in this article suggest that it is highly relevant to continue to study social skills, interpersonal sensitivity, attentiveness to others, and responsiveness to the needs and motivations of others. Are they understood as qualities and traits or, instead, as competencies and skills, which ideal leaders learn and develop strategically in order to achieve certain goals? Previous research shows that when customer service grew more important in the labor market, the definition of the interaction between customer and employees was redefined from that of providing helpful advice and caring for others to emphasizing effectiveness, marketing, sales, leading a discussion, and adopting an aggressive approach [84
]. Are leadership ideals, describing ideal Vice-Chancellors within higher education, similarly being redefined? This is something for future research to investigate.
This article has argued that the shift in leadership ideals, reflected and constructed in job advertisements for Vice-Chancellors, has coincided with the increase of female Vice-Chancellors in Swedish higher education. As the job advertisements became longer and described the ideal Vice-Chancellor in more detail, they also started to include traits, skills, and behaviors associated with a transformational leadership ideal. This finding gives support to previous research, which has emphasized that the image of the Vice-Chancellor as “King” and “hero” has been slowly and gradually replaced by an image of a servant [59
]. That more women became appointed Vice-Chancellor during this time period further supports previous research suggesting that the transformational ideal would benefit women candidates [39
]. Although the causal relationship between the increase of female Vice-Chancellors and increase of feminine wordings in job advertisements has not been established, the correlation in itself is interesting and the knowledge of it should inspire recruitment processes in the higher education sector in other countries.
Women’s presence in more prestigious and powerful positions has remained low throughout Europe [1
]. The male-domination in academic decision-making has persisted world-wide, and especially the Vice-Chancellor position has remained male-dominated [2
]. There are also long-term consequences on institutional and national level, e.g., skills and talent wastage and a missed opportunity for women to contribute to the future development of higher education. In a national review of gender equality in Irish higher education, the benefits of increased gender equality are described as in terms of meeting the challenges of the future, reaching academic excellence, and “positive results for the system as a whole” [86
] (p. 18). There are thus strong incentives for higher education institutions to increase the proportion of women academic leaders. In order to make sure that women continue to increase in academic leadership positions, it is important to research both their minority position and mapping the hindering factors for their academic leadership career progress. It is, however, also important to identify best practices and success cases [3
]. Sweden and Swedish higher education constitute such an interesting success case study, where women have been appointed Vice-Chancellor to a higher degree than in most other countries. Case studies from Sweden, such as this, can hopefully contribute to increased gender equality in senior leadership positions in higher education institutions in other countries.
Based on the results from this study, recommendations can be made regarding the recruitment and appointment processes involving Vice-Chancellors. Job advertisements and recruitment profiles used in these processes should always be critically scrutinized from a gendered perspective, and wordings that too explicitly refer to a masculine leadership ideal should be re-considered and re-worded. As previous research has highlighted, the use of feminine wordings are in line with definitions of efficient leadership. It should, hence, not pose a threat to the leadership in higher education if the wordings were adjusted to reflect traits that are common within leadership styles referred to as transformational and to include more communal qualities.