Looking for talented female CEOs? There's a group in charge of the Russell Group universities

Top universities are leading the way in appointing women to run them, but it's definitely not an easy job, says Heather McGregor.

by Heather McGregor
Last Updated: 12 Jan 2016

There are no female-free boards in the FTSE 100 any more, and the few remaining FTSE 250 boards without a woman are dwindling by the day. But the pipeline, we are told, continues to be weak. Female CEOs of public companies are rare. Within the work of the 30% Club, I help to lead an initiative that provides career workshops to younger women, in the hope of increasing their numbers in the future.

One place where female CEOs are increasing, providing not only role models but leadership opportunities, is the higher education sector. The appointment of Professor Louise Richardson as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford brings the number of women running Russell Group universities to four. All of them are notable academics (Richardson is a specialist in terrorism, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell at Manchester is a physiologist, Professor Alice Gast at Imperial is a chemical engineer and Professor Janet Beer at Liverpool knows an awful lot about American literature).

But it is their management abilities more than their research track record that will be needed. They face all the issues of any big business. Their brands will need investment, their staff will need to feel engaged, their costs kept under close scrutiny, their regulatory regime is constantly changing and their customer base is eroding.

University is not the only option, even for well-educated and ambitious young people. If you want to start your own business, why do you need a degree? And even if you don't, is it necessary to rack up a lot of debt and wait three years to start your career? Clarissa Farr, head of St Paul's Girls' School, has said that she thinks future leavers from her school will choose careers over university. 'I expect to see 18-year-olds being snapped up by big-name firms straight away and being trained and developed as employees ... The top university will not be the only route for the very able.' This from a woman who sends half her school leavers to Oxbridge.

So before getting you to pick their institution, these women are going to have to encourage you to actually choose to do a degree. The education to employment charity that I am a trustee of, Career Ready, has seen an increasing number of young people shun university to take up apprenticeships instead. Plus the recent budget decision to halt grants for students from the poorest families and replace them with loans will undoubtedly put people off from going.

So the customer will be king. The arrival of an unexpected Tory majority means that the goalposts are about to be moved. Universities have long been ranked by research. Now the new universities and science minister Jo Johnson, said in The Times in July, 'Students must have the information they need to judge teaching quality, just as they can already compare a faculty's research rating. Universities must be motivated to recognise excellent teaching ... and to afford great teachers the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as great researchers.'

As well as dealing with radically different levels of regulation they will have to fight for funding. All universities are going to face funding issues even as the evidence grows that the new fee regime will not be sustainable, with forecasts suggesting that the government will have to write off a much higher proportion of student debt than had been originally envisaged. Surely the days of the government underwriting fees at £9,000 per year are numbered? Plus the option of taking overseas students to supplement an institution's income will get harder as the government clamps down on student visas.

Then there is the vaulting ambition of their competitors, and I don't mean the other 20 male-led universities in the Russell Group. The 18 newer universities in the University Alliance are quick to remind you that, among many other vocation-led courses, they boast a world-leading animation degree and the UK's top marine biology degree. Will studying PPE at Oxford prepare you as well for the job market? It's tough out there, and it's everyone for themselves.

So next time someone tells me that there are not enough female business leaders, I shall point them to the four women blazing a trail in higher education. Between them they employ 35,000 staff and educate almost 100,000 students. They are tough managers, successful leaders, commanding huge budgets, and facing every challenge someone in the private sector does, and some more beside. I wish them every success.

Heather McGregor is the author of Careers Advice for Ambitious Women and the managing director of communications executive search specialist Taylor Bennett. She writes the Mrs Moneypenny column in the FT and tweets at @mrsmoneypennyft

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