Towards inclusive leadership in academia

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Institutional Communication Service

7 March 2022

We often talk about the so-called "glass ceiling" that prevents many women from reaching executive or managerial positions, both in the private sector and within institutions. Academia is no exception. According to a recent She Figures report conducted by the European Commission, in Switzerland, women make up only 24% of the teaching staff at the 12 universities in the country. This percentage is slightly lower than the average for EU member states, which stands at 26%. A phenomenon common to all countries and disciplines, tracing back to the so-called "leaky pipeline", meaning that the number of women who give up positions in the academic world is higher than the drop-out rate for their male colleagues. Therefore, it becomes essential to motivate more women professors in Swiss universities to take up leadership roles in their universities.
For this reason Università della Svizzera italiana participates in High Potential University Leaders Identity & Skills Training Programme - Inclusive Leadership in Academia (2021-24): a cooperative project, led by the University of Zurich, in which USI takes part within the Swissuniversities Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunities in Universities programme. The second year of this programme is currently underway and sees the participation of Silvia Santini, professor at the Faculty of Informatics. We asked her to talk about the project and its importance and relevance on a practical level.

The project offers management training seminars, networking activities among project participants, and private coaching sessions to motivate more female professors to occupy managerial positions in the universities where they are active. In Switzerland and many other countries, the number of women holding executive positions in universities - e.g., Deans, Vice-Chancellors, Rectors - is low and not commensurate with the number of female professors active in the universities themselves. At the same time, it is well known that in leadership bodies, diversity is crucial to ensure the good governance of an institution and to manage potential risks with vision and transparency. Therefore, it is imperative to promote diversity - gender and otherwise - in university management, and the project's practical goal is to increase the percentage of women active in such contexts.

What has been your career experience in university governance?

At USI, I have been a member of the Academic Senate since its establishment in 2017, and I have been a member of the USI Council (CU) since Jannuary 2020. I also sat in several committees within the Faculty of Informatics, of which I am a member, and at the university. Participating in the H.I.T. programme is also a chance for self-reflection and evaluation, and preparing for possible future developments.

How do you perceive the situation in Ticino and Switzerland concerning inclusion and diversity in university leadership?

In my perception, there is a growing awareness in Ticino and Switzerland and many other contexts of the importance of promoting inclusion and diversity at all levels. In this sense, universities are called upon to set an example, and sensitivity to this issue has certainly grown a great deal in recent years. Unfortunately, however, there is still a long way to go.

Inclusion and diversity: how can they be actively promoted in institutions?

First and foremost, with those tools that are unique to a university: knowledge and education. To be genuinely embraced as institutional values, there must be widespread awareness of the fundamental role that inclusion and diversity - as well as tolerance, respect, transparency, and accountability - play in ensuring the long-term sustainability and prosperity of an institution and society as a whole. It is important to include these concepts in everyday terminology and live them every day in the field. In this sense, I also believe that the issue must also be addressed through targeted training at all levels to actively promote a culture of inclusion and diversity.