[ March 2020]Women in Leadership Roles: Reflections and perspectives from a Business School Dean

By Professor Ruth Ashford, Senior Academic Advisor , Nurture Higher Education Group

A critical role of Business Schools is the development of the next generation of effective global business leaders/entrepreneurs. They have a valuable role within, not only the University, but also communities across the world.  Universities have the same leadership needs and challenges of any business. They require strong leadership in an age of disruption.  The perspectives outlined here are specific to higher education and the business school world but provide relevant insights for women in and aspiring towards leadership roles in different sized organisations.

As a Business School Executive Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor for over ten years, the author considers the leadership of successful business schools from a woman’s perspective, offering some thoughts about how opportunities for female Business School Deans could be developed, nurtured and address gender imbalances in leadership roles in higher education.

Leadership and management in an age of uncertainty require different perspectives, styles and a diversity of views and background.  However, even in 2020, there is still a gender issue in the leadership of Business Schools as the Dean’s role is male dominated, and worldwide only 25%-30% of Business Schools have a female Dean.  (although this is growing).

Business School Deans: Why is there still a Gender Imbalance?

This imbalance mirrors the lack of female CEOs in organisations internationally.  The lack of female Deans relates to the general debates around the ‘glass ceiling’ and the associated issues which impact on women in general i.e. explicit (e.g. education – less females have had access to complete PhDs) and implicit barriers (‘old boys club’ and unconscious bias).  Some ‘taboo’ areas relating to this phenomenon are now being researched and as a result more openly discussed/ in the media.  The impact of the peri and post menopause for leaders (NEU, 2020, Institute of Leadership and Management), work-life balance and the impact of ‘sandwich generation’ (which females often experience i.e. caring roles for elderly parents, children and grandchildren), and general confidence issues are key concerns for the future recruitment of female Deans.

 What is the Recipe for Female Deans to Survive and Thrive?

My own personal reflections and experiences as a female Leader and specifically Dean of a large business school can be distilled around 6 key recipes and approaches for success for aspiring female leaders of business schools, which have generic application:

  1.  Demonstrate compassion and care: Female leaders need to ensure that they select their messages and communication methods to demonstrate care and compassion for all stakeholders. This is a simple concept, but the magic is in the execution, ensuring that the Dean takes everyone with them.
  2.  Gain Resilience: notoriously, women tend to be ‘hard’ on themselves if things do not go as well as one would have hoped. Resilience is the key.  Deans and any leader need to ensure that they can withstand adversity.
  3.  Embrace role fluidity: men and women juggle many roles in life and these roles can blend together or be quite separate. Most progressive organisations will have policies/support for this and will be able to support as much as possible – however, many females do not want to seek such support for the fear of being viewed as a ‘weak’ leader. Women need to embrace their role fluidity and be not afraid to take advantage of support mechanisms offered in the workplace.
  4.  Embracing change and accept control issues: most leaders often feel that they have a lack of control of the external environment – but also within the University. Successful Leaders need to accept that they can’t control areas which might make them uncomfortable and need to keep a realistic perspective and relish this uncertainty, treating it as a challenge.
  5.  Champion an inclusive culture: Research confirms that some males champion other males within the organisation who are similar to them, so with the gender imbalance, this often means that women do not get such support. Therefore, female Deans need to ensure that they work hard to try to redress this imbalance and invest in the pipeline of new female Leaders. 
  6.  Develop personal professional network- peer to peer support mechanisms: female Leaders need to ensure that they find time to work on and maintain their own personal professional network.  This may feel indulgent, but it is essential for a Leader to feel grounded. There is usually a very strong bond between female Leaders, wanting to support each other across the globe and often, this sort of network can be built from external or internal development programmes as well as professional bodies and formal Leadership networks (in the business school world, these organisations include programs offered by Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS)).


Professor Ruth Ashford is the Senior Academic Advisor for Nurture HE Group Ltd, who are the creators of the Goal Business Education network currently working with the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce and the University of Newcastle, Australia (UON).  Professor Ashford is a member of the Management Committee for the Nurture UON partnership which provides the quality assurance and oversight for the unique Two Degree Program in Bangkok at the UTCC campus. 

 More details on our partnership activity in Bangkok with the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC) at  uon.utcc.ac.th and nuturehighereducation.com



Professor Ruth Ashford has more than 25 years’ experience in Higher Education management within post-92 Business Schools in the United Kingdom. She has previously served as Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at Manchester Metropolitan University and Executive Dean of Business and Management at the University of Chester. As the former Chief Examiner of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) she was involved with the International launch of the CIM Student Chapter and CIM Professional syllabus. She served on the Quality Assurance Agency review panel for the UK benchmark standards in Business and Management for both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

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