The Men Next in Line Aren’t Interested Anymore
Feminization of Senior Management Positions in Swedish Higher Education
The book chapter summarised below is one of 15 chapters constituting the GEXcel Work In Progress Report Volume XVII, published by the Sweden Research Council (Centres of Gender Excellence, 2013).
While the chapter content doesn’t directly relate to international schooling, EDDi’s Editors have chosen it for discussion because we believe it contains some interesting and pertinent messages for all educational and international school leaders – notably the changing gender constitution (and character?) of leadership.
Specifically, there are three key themes deserving of examination, and which constitute the basis for this chapter by Helen Peterson:
1. Feminization of educational leadership;
2. Men no longer the gender norm in educational leadership;
3. Why men are no longer interested in educational leadership.
Methodology and Research Focus
The chapter draws on qualitative interviews with 22 women in senior management positions in ten Swedish HE institutions; four Vice Chancellors, six Pro Vice Chancellors, five Deans (Heads of Faculty) and seven Pro Deans. Fifteen of these women were professors, five were associate professors, and two senior lecturers. Their age ranged from 44 to 64 and they had between 20 and 30 years experience in Swedish academia.
The interviewed women were asked to describe their current work situation and their academic career, to reflect upon academia as a work place for women from a more general perspective and changes occurring over the past 20 years. They were encouraged to develop their own ideas and opinions related to the increasing number of women in HE management.
Findings and Discussion
1. Feminization of educational leadership:
Feminization can refer to a significant increase in women in an occupation or profession and has been suggested to be relevant when a third of the organisation are women. For example, in 1990 only 14% of Vice Chancellors in Swedish HE were women. But by 2010 this had increased dramatically to 43%. However, feminization can also be used to denote qualitative aspects such as status, power, pay, values, professional practices, organisation of work and professional identity.
So although demographic feminization can be taken as a sign of increasing gender equality in an organisation or profession, this has to be set alongside cultural dynamics and material realities/processes. This is especially so in those organisations and professions where men may not numerically dominate but masculine values do. In such instances, women may comply with the organisational norms and masculine values.
There are also situations whereby new forms of gender segregation emerge with, for example, women being required and expected to assume multiple ‘caring roles’ in the organisation leaving men to pursue silo-work and singular career-enhancing activities. Regarding academic management, researchers have suggested that the increasing number of women in positions of seniority in HE might be accompanied by a decline and de-skilling of management work. In short, feminisation carries multiple meanings and can be interpreted in different ways, though the first step towards a true and full feminisation of an organisation would be expected to occur via demographic shifts towards women leaders followed by cultural shifts towards feminine leadership styles and associated working climate.
2. Men no longer the gender norm in educational leadership:
The women in senior academic management positions interviewed for this study generally agreed that the previously masculine meaning of management was being challenged in Swedish HE. They stated that the demographic shift towards women leaders was shifting gender normative thinking and expectations with men no longer seen as the normal in management posts.
The importance of having a woman leader superseded by another woman was also emphasised as this establishes a gender continuity and further normalises and embeds the relationship between women and academic leadership/power. The first woman appointment may be seen as different, unusual, outside the norm, perhaps even resisted by some men academics, but subsequent appointments of women leaders establishes a new normal which is much less likely to be challenged or considered ‘unusual’. Does this then signal a new era of feminised work practices, values and systems in (Swedish) HE?
The study suggests this is not inevitable, reason being this feminisation emerges at the same time as HE leadership becomes more intense and an increasing administrative burden on individuals. The last 20 years has seen Swedish HE undergoing a restructuring, with increased autonomy accompanied by intensified evaluation schemes, performance measures, profit-orientation, quality indicators and procedures of self-assessment.
This new ‘professionalisation’ has clear links to a masculinist approach to leadership and management with performativity dominating Swedish HE culture (and elsewhere), resulting in a fixation on targets, profits and measurables but at the expense of students, staff, and the wellbeing of individuals. For academic managers interviewed for this research, this intensified HE work culture translated into dramatically increased workloads of between 50 and 70 hours a week.
3. Why men are no longer interested in educational leadership:
Swedish Higher Education for senior leaders can now be considered an ‘extreme job’.
In addition to being an academic manager the respondents (Deans and Pro Deans) were expected to carry out previously prescribed teaching and research functions within their discipline. The implication being that due to the time limited character of the management role, usually stretching between three and six years, the option to be a manager full time was no longer an attractive one.
Most of the women interviewed for this study followed the line of reasoning that appear in previous research on feminisation which is that men would continue to retreat from academic management positions because of one specific change – the increase in workload.
As one respondent put it:
‘Some of the men that would be next in line for a management position might not be interested in it anymore. Because it’s too much hard work.’
The women leader’s stories support a specific case of social and cultural feminisation in Swedish Higher Education. That is, when occupations become associated with women while simultaneously becoming deskilled and intensified, men opt out. They start to abandon the occupation, no longer pursuing career leadership pathways and thereby allowing more women access to leadership posts.
This trend opens up an alternative perspective on leadership – that of leader as servant.
“A management role is easily transferred into a servant role. Especially if many women hold the position…The academic management positions will follow the same pattern as we see everywhere. When women reach over 50% the positions will lose all prestige. And then even more women will be allowed to enter.’ (p.91)
While the notion that feminisation of educational leadership will automatically entail a degrading of prestige and status of the posts is an oversimplification, this study does suggest that at least in HE, management/leadership positions are no longer considered attractive career options compared to research career-tracks.
Are we likely to see a similar shift in international school leadership and management? Will we see an emergent feminisation of this profession resulting in a dumbing down of the leadership role leaving men reluctant to take on the position of ‘school manager/leader as servant’?
And if this does occur, what are the implications for school organisational cultures and climates? Is masculinism on the way out or is it simply reshaping itself to meet the demands of profit-driven performativity in schools?
Interesting questions for us all to ponder over.
Optimistically, I am inclined towards the conclusion presented in this chapter, which is that women entering positions of power and status (in Higher Education as elsewhere) at the very least suggests:
‘that being different from the norm means that there is potential to challenge the norm.’
Peterson, Helen. (2013). 'The Men Next in Line Aren't Interested Anymore'. Feminization of Senior Management Positions in Swedish Higher Education.
Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1,000 followers.
Stephen’s latest book ‘Total Inclusivity At Work’ is available for pre-order HERE.
For further details, download the flier: