Climbing the 'Staircase': Do EEO Policies Contribute to Women Achieving Senior Leadership Positions in Universities in Australia and Hong Kong?


  • Elise Stephenson Griffith University
  • Kaye Broadbent Griffith Universisty
  • Glenda Strachan Griffith University


Often at the vanguard of equal employment opportunity (‘EEO’) interventions and movements for equality, it is surprising that universities remain inherently gendered in leadership, with few women making it to senior leadership positions worldwide. While EEO policies have been expressly designed to achieve equality and redress gender imbalances inherent in university structures, it is unclear whether EEO policies practically contribute to this, with an enduring leadership imbalance evidenced globally. To determine the contributions of EEO policies across the international labour market in which universities operate, this case study compares the EEO policies and experiences of ten women university leaders in Australia and Hong Kong. This study finds that more-developed EEO policies correlate with more women in leadership and better experiences of leadership for women within the universities. However, it is clear from a sustained gender imbalance in leadership that EEO policies do not redress gender inequality alone. Limitations of EEO interventions include the narrow focus on aspects of discrimination and inequality and over-reliance on traditional concepts of “merit” and leadership. Grounded within the Asia Pacific region, this case study demonstrates that the contributions of EEO policies to women’s leadership in universities are nuanced.  

Author Biography

Elise Stephenson, Griffith University

Postgraduate Student, Griffith University, School of Government and International Relations.


A Articles/Books/Reports

Acker, Joan, ‘Inequality Regimes: Gender Class, and Race in Organisations’ (2006) 20(4) Gender and Society

Acker, Joan, ‘From Glass Ceiling to Inequality Regimes’, (2009) 51(2) Sociologie Du Travail

Aiston, Sarah, ‘Leading the Academy or Being Led? Hong Kong Women Academics’ (2014) 33(1) Higher Education Research and Development

Ali, Faiza, 'A Comparative Study of EEO in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh', in Mustafa F Ozbilgin and Jawad Syed, Managing Gender Diversity in Asia: A Research Companion (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2010

Benschop, Yvonne, and Brouns, Margo,‘Crumbling Ivory Towers: Academic Organising and its Gender Effects’ (2003) 10(2) Gender, Work and Organisation

Blackmore, Jill, and Sawers, Naarah, ‘Executive Power and Scaled-Up Gender Subtexts in Australian Entrepreneurial Universities’ (2015)

Bryson, Alex, and Frege, Carola, ‘The Importance of Comparative Workplace Employment Relations Studies’ (2010) 48(2) British Journal of Industrial Relations

Burton, Clare, Monograph No. 2: Redefining Merit, (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988)

Burton, Clare, Monograph No. 3: Gender Bias in Job Evaluation, (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988)

Catalyst, Quick Take: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace (Catalyst, 2016)

Chow, Irene, ‘Gender Differences in Perceived Leadership Effectiveness in Hong Kong’ (2005) 20(3/4) Women in Management Review

Dallmayr, Fred, ‘Confucianism and the Public Sphere: Five Relationship Plus One?’ (2003) 2(2) Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy

Diezmann, Carmel, and Grieshaber, Susan, ‘Gender Equity in the Professoriate: A Cohort Study of New Women Professors in Australia’ in M Devlin and A Lichtenberg (eds), Research and Development in Higher Education: Reshaping Higher Education (Paper presented at 33rd HERDSA Annual International Conference 6-9 July)

de Vries, Jennifer, ‘A Realistic Agenda? Women Only Programs as Strategic Interventions for Building Gender Equitable Workplaces’ (2010) University of Western Australia, PhD

Eveline, Joan, Ivory Basement Leadership: Power and Invisibility in the Changing University (University of Western Australia Press, 2004)

Healy, Geraldine, and Gill Kirton, Gill, ‘The Early Mobilisation of Women Union Leaders – A Comparative Perspective’ (2013) 51(4) British Journal of Industrial

King, Ambrose, ‘Kuan-his and Network Building: A Sociological Interpretation’ (1991) 120(2) Daedalus

Kloot, Louise, ‘Women and Leadership in Universities: A Case Study of Women Academic Managers’ (2004) 17(6) The International Journal of Public Sector Management

Luke, Carmen, ‘“I Got to Where I Am By My Own Strength”: Women in Hong Kong Higher Education Management’ (1998) 26(1) Education Journal 54

Carmen Luke, ‘One Step Up, Two Down: Women in Higher Education Management in Southeast Asia’ (2000) 1 Academic Work and Life

Marginson, Simon, Kaur, Sarjit and Sawir, Erlenawati (eds), Higher Education in the Asia-Pacific: Strategic Responses to Globalisation (Springer, 2011)

Meier, Petra and Lombardo, Emanuela, ‘Gender Quotas, Gender Mainstreaming and Gender Relations in Politics’ (2013) 65(1) Political Science

Morley, Louise, ‘The Rules of the Game: Women and the Leaderist Turn in Higher Education’ (2012) 25(1) Gender and Education

Morley, Louise, ‘Lost Leaders: Women in the Global Academy’ (2014) 33 Higher Education Research and Development

Murray, Niki, Tremaine, Marianne and Fountaine, Susan, ‘Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling in the Ivory Tower: Using a Case Study to Gain New Understandings of Old Gender Issues’ (2012) 14(2) Advances in Developing Human Resources

Neuman, Lawrence, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (Pearson Education Limited, 2014) 110

Peets, David, Strachan, Glenda, and Troup, Caroline, ‘Discipline, Change and Gender in the Academic Workforce’ (2014) (Paper presented to 28th AIRAANS Conference, Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand, 7-9 February)

Reilly, Amanda, Jones, Deborah, Rey Vasquez, Carla, and Krisjanous, Jayne, ‘Confronting Gender Inequality in a Business School’ (2016) 35(5) Higher Education Research and Development

Sanders, Karen, Willemsen, Teneke, and Millar, Carla, ‘Views From Above the Glass Ceiling: Does the Academic Environment Influence Women Professors’ Careers and Experiences’ (2009) 60(4) Sex Roles

Saunderson, Wendy, ‘Women, Academia and Identity: Constructions of Equal Opportunities in the ‘New Managerialism’ – A Case of Lipstick on the Gorilla?’ (2002) 65(4) Higher Education Quarterly

Strachan, Glenda, and French, Erica, ‘EEO: Is it Living Up to its Promise of Gender Equity?’ (2008) in P Stanton and S Young (eds), Workers, Corporations and Community: Facing Choices for a Sustainable Future: Volume 1: Refereed Papers (Proceedings of the 22nd Conference of the Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand)

Van Krieken, Robert, Habibis, Daphne, Smith, Philip, Hutchins, Brett, Martin, Greg, and Maton, Karl, Sociology, (Pearson Education, 4th Ed, 2010)

Wall, James, ‘Managers in the People’s Republic of China’ (1990) 4(2) The Executive 27

Wang, Y, Yue, Q and Yu, K, ‘Women Leaders of Higher Education: Female Executives in Leading Universities in China’ (2013) 9(6) Cross-Cultural Communication

White, Kate, ‘Women and Leadership in Higher Education in Australia’ (2003) 9(1) Tertiary Education and Management

Winchester, Hilary, Chesterman, Colleen, Lorenzo, Shard, and Browning, Lynette ‘Academic Women’s Promotions in Australian Universities’ (2006) 28(6) Employee Relations

B Legislation

Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth)

Sex Discrimination Ordinance 1995 (HKSAR).

C Other

Aiston, Sarah, A Woman’s Place at the Top Table is Not Assured (2015) <>

Australian Academy of Science, Gender Equity (2016) <>

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Hitting the Books: Characteristics of Higher Education Students (2013) <>

Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Women and Men in Hong Kong: Key Statistics (2014) <>

Equality Challenge Unit, Athena SWAN Charter (2016) <>

Lam, Woon-Kwong, Gender Equality Policy/Practice in Hong Kong: Equal Opportunities Commission (2006) <>

University Grants Council, Table 12 Academic and Research Staff (Headcount) in Academic Departments of UGC- funded Institutions with Salaries Wholly Funded from General Funds by Staff Grade, Sex and Institution, 2008/09 and 2009/10 (2010) <>

Workplace Gender Equality Agency, About Workplace Gender Equality (2016) <>

Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Gender Pay Gap Statistics (2016) <>






Gender, Culture, and Narrative Special Issue