Skip to content

Numerous studies in higher education have examined women’s leadership in academic institutions both within specific countries and from an international perspective (Barnard et al., 2022; Norander & Zenk, 2023). While there has been a growing body of research exploring the underrepresentation of women in Nigerian and South African higher education leadership, there is still uncertainty about why these countries’ gender policies have not led to significant change (Igiebor, 2021) and this warrants a comparative study of them. In the UK, significant changes in gender equality have emerged over the past decade, driven by the agenda of equality, diversity, inclusivity and access in universities. Initiatives like Athena SWAN, Aurora and Leadership Matters have been effective in increasing gender diversity in managerial leadership. Yet, as noted by O’Connor (2020), achieving gender equality in academic leadership requires structural changes.

‘Achieving gender equality in academic leadership requires structural changes.’

This blog post, focusing on women’s underrepresentation in higher education leadership, outlines research findings from the first phase of the AURORA project (‘Addressing Women’s Underrepresentation in Higher Education Leadership in Nigeria and South Africa’). The AURORA Project (2023-4), which is supported by a Gender Equality Partnerships grant from the British Council’s Going Global Partnerships programme, addresses the inequalities restricting women’s ability to apply for, undertake and promote leadership positions in higher education. International partners include Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), University of South Africa (UniSA) and Lagos State University in Nigeria (LASU).

The review aimed to identify challenges faced by women academic leaders and highlight the suggested measures for enhancing gender equality in leadership. Searches were conducted in Scopus, Web of Science and ERIC databases. We included journal articles written in English published from 2013 to 2023. Overall, we identified 37 articles on women in academic leadership from the focus contexts.

We identified four main themes in the articles. A significant portion (n=21) explores the lived experiences of women in academic leadership roles, delving into their ongoing challenges, leadership journeys and strategies. The second category (n=7) addresses policy documents, organisational barriers and institutional challenges related to women’s underrepresentation. The third category (n=6) covers studies on leadership styles and the representations of leaders. And the fourth category (n=3) focuses on studies about development programmes and training.

Figure 1 shows the seven recurring themes frequently mentioned in relation to the challenges and barriers faced by women academics in their leadership roles.

Figure 1: Challenges women academic leaders face

The studies we reviewed reflect challenges of balancing family and work responsibilities. While universities often claim to be flexible and supportive, many women find themselves in a position where they must decide to sacrifice either their family or professional responsibilities to succeed. They also point out high workloads and stress levels. Challenges such as lack of cooperation from colleagues and mentors, along with the absence of role models are commonly highlighted in the studies. Bias and discrimination in the selection and promotion process, not getting enough financial support and having poorly designed gender policies, make it harder for women academics to progress in their careers.

Various strategies have been suggested to address the underrepresentation of women in academic leadership. We classified these strategies into three main categories: professional development and training opportunities; measures to be taken in policy levels and organisational changes; and strengthening support mechanisms and networking.

Findings from our research on Nigeria, South Africa and the UK reveal a wide range of challenges faced by women academic leaders, along with strategies to overcome the obstacles. The outcome of this review can inform higher education institutions, policymakers and government bodies on addressing gendered inequalities at structural and organisations levels.


Barnard, S., Arnold, J., Bosley, S., & Munir,F. (2022). The personal and institutional impacts of a mass participation leadership programme for women working in higher education: A longitudinal analysis. Studies in Higher Education, 47(7),1372–1385.

Igiebor, O. (2021). Women, academic leadership and the ‘constricting’ gender equity policies in Nigerian universities: An integrated feminist approach. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 43(4), 338–352.

Norander, S., & Zenk, L. (2023). The invisible labor for emerging women leaders: A critical analysis of literature in higher education, Advancing Women in Leadership, 42, 12–22. 

O’Connor, P. (2020). Why is it so difficult to reduce gender inequality in male-dominated higher educational organizations? A feminist institutional perspective, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 42(2), 207–228.

More content by Ayca Gunaydin Kaymakcioglu, Michael Thomas, Henry Hunjo and Michael Van Wyk