Women leaders can break the mould

Indira Samarasekera, President of the University of Alberta  in Canada, was one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE) Conference, held at OECD headquarters in Paris this past September. Marilyn Achiron, Editor at the OECD’s Education Directorate, spoke with her about a variety of subjects:

Marilyn Achiron: What unique talents do women have as school leaders, and how can we achieve gender equality in school leadership positions?
Indira Samarasekera: At the risk of overgeneralising, women tend to network more, and perhaps listen more, to a variety of stakeholders. Men have tended to have to follow the mould of someone before them; but women can break the mould. That’s the advantage of women leaders.
Gender equality in school leadership has often been difficult to achieve because of the challenges of women having children. The question is: How do you support that? It requires that people in the university be thoughtful and mindful. There were leaders in my university who sought me out and put me in leadership positions, heads of committees who helped to put me where I am today. They went out of their way to find people like me—I was only an assistant professor, for goodness sake. I think gender equality can be achieved without overnight social change, but you need thoughtful men and women leaders.

MA: The latest edition of Education at a Glance highlights the fact that young women are now more likely than young men to graduate from upper secondary school. What is your reaction to that finding?
IS:  I worry about it. For the longest time we worried about the fact that there weren’t enough women; now we’re worried that we’re losing young men. The potential social consequences of that are huge. In a society where innovation and higher education provide access to high-wage jobs, we have huge numbers of young men who will be left behind. We need gender parity for all those who need education. Young men develop later; as a result, they are not as prepared to compete on university entrance exams as young women are. But they catch up quickly later. We have to consider high school grades with a pinch of salt. We have to find a way, without diluting the quality of education, to transfer young men to university, maybe after two years in a community college. Community colleges can be a kind of bridge between high school and higher education. Two years can make a big difference.

MA: In your keynote address, you spoke passionately against university rankings.
IS:  Rankings are absolutely detrimental, and it’s very questionable what value they add to society. They don’t recognise teaching, they foster homogenisation, there are no assessments of publications and the effect of research on society, they completely discount valuable research. In fact, these rankings promote the “caste culture” in science. They want everyone to be Harvard, but even Harvard is having trouble being Harvard because they can’t afford it anymore. To their credit, though, rankings have focused the spotlight on high-quality universities. But those who are doing the rankings are not accountable to anyone; they’re there to make money.

General Conference 2012: “Attaining and Sustaining Mass Higher Education”
OECD Skills Strategy
Education at a Glance: www.oecd.org/edu/eag2012
Visit our interactive portal on skills: http://skills.oecd.org
See related blog post: Welcome to my world. Won’t you come on in? by Valérie Lafon
Photo credit: ©OECD

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