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The low numbers of women in senior leadership and management positions in many sectors, including higher education (HE), is a critical, global issue. It is especially apparent in the Arab world.  

The Global Gender Gap (2014) revealed that, within the Gulf region, women constitute 45 percent of the total population and were better educated than men, but only comprised about a quarter of the labour force. Still, over the last decade, GCC countries have adopted new laws and policies aimed at promoting women’s inclusion in social and political life and in the workforce. Despite this trend, women remain significantly underrepresented in senior and board positions in most industries, and higher education (HE) is no exception.

While there is clear evidence that there are few women in senior roles in HE, the reasons for this are complex. There are some who believe that women’s traits and behaviours are ‘inappropriate’ for top management positions. Some women opt out of their own accord or impose limitations on their career aspirations. Organizational structure and culture may also shape a woman’s behaviour. Male-dominated universities may consciously or unconsciously promote gender bias in the assessment and evaluation process or may overlook the conflict many women confront between the demands of their family and their commitment to the university. 

Cultural attitudes in the GCC countries also contribute to the status quo. A lack of pro-family public policies or adequate support services, social expectations, and work/life tensions act as powerful constraints. Cultural bias has become a major hindrance to women’s advancement towards leadership in the HE workforce, despite their capabilities and qualifications.

Structural obstacles

Organisational structure is problematic in several Gulf countries. In Saudi Arabia. for example, a segregated education system is maintained by nearly all universities. Top positions are filled by men who communicate with female colleagues indirectly on paper or electronically. Women remain isolated and rarely rise higher than Vice-dean or Vice-chair in the women's section. 

The limitations on direct contact between male and female administrators can diminish opportunities for women to express concerns or advocate for changes needed within their areas of responsibility. Women often require approval from their male colleagues before a decision can be taken; these women are stuck in limbo without enough authority or influence to demonstrate their leadership potential. Culture weighs in here as well since many women are not comfortable conversing with a man who is not a family member. Saudi custom limits contact among members of the opposite sex, something that makes professional cooperation across gender boundaries difficult. Finding appropriate solutions to facilitate the progression of women to senior positions, such as President or Dean might be possible within a segregated system, but will require sensitivity and diplomacy.

Additional barriers to career progression for women are a result of their exclusion from professional and organizational networks dominated by men in khaleeji society [The term “khaleeji” refers to nationals, culture and heritage of the six GCC countries.]. An example of this are the diwaniyya—closed male circles— that are social gatherings to network and discuss current affairs. In the GCC, wasta,a form of social connection based on personal relationships, often influences the recruitment or promotion of individuals to senior managerial positions. Women cannot break into the wasta culture given the degree of gender separation in many Arab cultures. Not only are women denied networking opportunities, but also the potential to be mentored to help them advance.

What can be done?

According to a recent World Bank report (2017), there is still limited data to inform policies that might improve women’s advancement in the GCC. The identification of underlying mechanisms such as organizational structures, culture, social attitudes and the criteria that determine progression towards leadership roles are key. 

While there is no simple or quick solution that would address the challenges that women face in career progression, case studies could help to identify key factors that determine women's opportunities at HEIs in the Gulf and map the career trajectories of women in the region and while developing a narrative to make their challenges more visible. Additionally, there needs to be a concerted effort by stakeholders, policymakers, private industry and key actors to address this. 

Many Arab women consider marriage, children and family as their primary responsibilities. If women are to fulfil their potential within HE leadership, more flexible working arrangements will be needed to lessen tensions with obligations at home. Social change takes time, but it does require new patterns of behaviour in the home, in society and in institutional policies and practices.


The region is still defined as family-based and male-dominated, where gender roles are clearly defined, and societal attitudes and cultural traditions cannot be ignored.  These factors cannot be overlooked when exploring policy changes to promote female participation in senior leadership positions. 

The Gulf States are investing heavily in creating knowledge-based economies and increasing female participation in the workforce is a government priority. The Vision 2030 initiative in Saudi Arabia calls for a vast improvement in the status of women. The UAE has recognised gender balance as a key performance indicator in Vision 2021.  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President of Dubai, has directed the Gender Balance Council to implement the Gender Inequality Index, produced annually by the UN Development Programme. However, it is still not clear what steps universities are willing to take, and it is clear that universities in the region need to take concerted action to ensure the inclusion of women at the highest levels.


Jwharh Madagali is a researcher in leadership and management studies and works as a university teacher at the management school, University of Liverpool. Her research interests relate to gender equality in employment, leadership in HE; culture and international management; culture and application of qualitative research methods in different contexts.  

John Taylor is professor of higher education, Lancaster University. He is active in teaching and research on matters relating to policy and management in higher education. 

Lisa Anderson is associate dean postgraduate at the University of Liverpool Management School and vice chair of the British Academy of Management. Her research interests are in management education and practice.


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