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Often what is perceived as marginalised women are
those powerless and holding insignificant position in a society or group, but I
would argue otherwise. Even within the ivory tower of academic institution,
woman are excluded, marginalised and positioned as the ‘other’ in the ivory
basement. There are barriers to access power. This does not mean that I ignore
the struggle and voices of those less powerful or the powerless; rather, I
believe that the struggle of women in universities equally deserves our
attention. This essay explores the changing and gendered conditions of
leadership representation in Indonesian higher education. The recent emergence
of five female Rectors in Indonesian public universities signals a structural
change which serves as an entry point to analyse the gendered representation in
senior leadership positions. I use the notion ’emergence’ to describe the ways
new subjects emerge in the masculine playing field of Indonesian public


and Higher Education Leadership

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Historically, higher education (HE) was the province
of the elites and men (Blackmore, 2002; Read
& Kehm, 2016). Today with the statistical changes of gender ratio
in the student body and academic staff, universities have become a more
ambiguous site for women. It is ambiguous because on the one hand, university
provides possibilities for women through the production and development of
postmodernist, postcolonial and feminist critiques. On the other hand, it is
also a place of structuring the modernist patriarchal and colonial relations as
well as offering potential remedies to this structure (Blackmore, 2002). In other words, universities might be the place for
intellectual discussion of current issues and theories of social justice and
equity, but the underlying structures of patriarchal and colonial relations,
worryingly, remain the same.


Leadership in public universities is identified as a
masculine domain largely dominated by men (Blackmore, 2002;
Blackmore & Sawers, 2015). While more women are now entering leadership roles
in HE, gender imbalance in HE leadership remains a global issue (Aiston, 2014;
Bagilhole, 2012; Collings et al,
2011; Davidson & Burke, 2004; Fitzgerald, 2012; Odhiambo, 2011), and this includes Indonesia. The statistics
reporting gender representation in Indonesian HE is as equally concerning as
other parts of the world. Although the university student cohort shows a
balance: 52.7 percent of women and 47.3 percent of men, as well as the ratio of
university lecturers: 57.5 percent of men, and 42.5 percent of women1;
there are only five (5) women Rectors in public universities in Indonesia, as
compared to 115 men who occupied the Rector positions.


The issue of gender and HE leadership increasingly
becomes an important discussion because HE is a major site of power struggle,
symbolic control, cultural practice and identity formation (Blackmore, 2002;
Odhiambo, 2011). More specifically, “senior leadership is the sphere
where academic and management identities are negotiated and values around the
role of the university are decided” (Blackmore &
Sawers, 2015, p. 320). The absence or lack of women in senior leadership
and management means that women are under-represented across various mediums of
critical decision making, including senate committees, university boards,
recruitment panels and the executives (Morley, 2013).


Why are women underrepresented?

Instead of essentialising ‘culture’ as the major
barrier, women’s underrepresentation in HE leadership can be attributed to
three main factors: personal, structural or institutional, and cultural (Blackmore &
Sawers, 2015; Fitzgerald, 2012; Onsongo, 2004). Firstly, personal
factors associate the absence of women in leadership positions with
personality characteristics, attitudes and behavioural tendencies that women
tend to possess (or are constructed to have). This includes a perception of a
lack of self-confidence, motivation and ambition to climb the academic and
managerial career ladder.


Secondly, the structural
or institutional factors explain the gendered division of labour in the HE sector
that marginalises women in the organisational hierarchy as a result of power structure.
The structural factors that relegate women from leadership and management roles
revolve around issues such as discriminative appointment and promotion
practices (Doherty & Manfredi,
2010), the arrangement of paternal (maternity and
paternity) leave (Locke, 2016), limited opportunities for leadership training (White et al, 2012) and the absence of policies to ensure participation
of women (Onsongo, 2004). In a broader view, structural factor also deals with
Indonesia’s political condition which influenced how women are placed in the
system. For example, according to Suryakusuma (1988), women were positioned as wives and mothers during
the New Order through a very systematic and structured organisation called
Family Welfare Guidance (or Pembinaan
Kesejahteraan Keluarga). The ideology, Suryakusuma named as ‘State Ibuism’,
has defined and confined what counts as good mothers and good wives through
certain representation and internalisation. It surely has its effects on
university life too.


Thirdly, cultural
factors refer to the social construction of gender that impacts on the
assignment of specific roles, responsibilities and expectations of women and
men (Read & Kehm, 2016). Albeit irrelevant to the workplace, the general
traditional culture which positions women as caregivers and nurturers in the
family and society is carried into the working environment and has a tendency
to assign women to stereotypical job description and roles (Fitzgerald, 2012;
Onsongo, 2004; Read & Kehm, 2016). Those three factors, at least, are useful in
understanding the challenges encountered by women in higher education in an
international context that is relevant to Indonesia.


The Emergence of Women Leaders
in Indonesian HE

changing nature of gendered leadership in Indonesian HE is characterised by the
emergence of five female rectors in the public universities (table 1). The
biographies in online newspaper and Wikipedia often depict them as ‘inspiring
and successful’ women who are able to climb the career ladder in the
traditionally masculine space of public universities. There are more women who
take up the Rector position in private and Islamic universities, but it is
beyond the discussion of this essay. The following is the summary of the
profiles of the female Rectors.


1. Profiles of Five Women Rectors in Indonesian Public Universities


Leadership Period

Home University

City, Province

Prof. Badia

2007-2011 &


Palembang, South Sumatra

Prof. Tian

2009-2013 &

Open University

South Tangerang, Banten

Prof. Dwikorita


Gajah Mada Univ

Jogjakarta, Central Java

Prof. Dwia Aries


Hasanuddin Univ

Makassar, South Sulawesi

Prof. Ellen Joan


Sam Ratulangi Univ

Manado, North Sulawesi


argue that there are at least three conditions which contributed to the
emergence of women entering senior positions in Indonesian public universities:
the internationalisation trend, the increasing number of women professors in
the academia, and the momentum of women’s empowerment in HE.  


with the trend of internationalisation within Indonesian universities in 2010 (Soejatminah, 2011), new discourses
are introduced and jostled together uncomfortably to respond to greater market
competition, such as competitiveness, equity, access, efficiency and
effectiveness (Rosser, 2016; Sakhiyya, 2016). As a result,
many universities are pursuing international rankings, focusing on quality
assurance and advancing international partnership. This is a period in which
women are encouraged to move into leadership positions in middle management (Blackmore & Sawers, 2015; White et al., 2012). In the
Indonesian context particularly, this enables women to access the top leadership
positions after occupying the middle management. As advancing international
partnership becomes a focal point for the institution, the emerging pattern of
those female Rectors and Deans are women with a global engagement trajectory
and international networks. This global engagement role used to be dominated by
males (Blackmore & Sawers, 2015) assuming that
flexibility and mobility characterise men more than women (Devine, Grummell, & Lynch, 2011). But this
assumption is less relevant today because global engagement needs more soft
skills including cross-cultural understanding, cultural sensitivity, and
foreign language proficiency. Women have mastered these skills better.


2010 onwards there is an increasing number of women professors in Indonesia. In
2016, women make up 19 percent of professors. This is double the amount in
2000. This means more women are qualified to occupy the senior leadership
positions and roles. The current regulation issued by the Ministry of Research
and Technology and Higher Education (MRTHE) on the Rector appointment and
dismissal reads that the minimum qualification of a rector candidate is having
a doctoral degree ( MRTHE, 2016). However, many
public universities require or prefer to have a Rector who holds a title of
Professor. In addition, the Rector is elected through the senate forum where
professors from each faculty gather to screen, vote and inaugurate. The senate
holds 65 percent of the vote, and the Minister holds 35 percent. With this
structural procedure, academic leadership is strongly correlated with
structural leadership in public universities. This procedure might seem like a
democratic process because the majority stakeholder is the senate. However, the
vote is often distributed which gives the minister a lot of concentrated power
to choose who he likes (the minister
has always been a ‘he’).


‘democratic’ process means that the playing field is rigged. This condition
does not only occur in the senior leadership position, but also in academic
positions. Current statistical data of academic positions throughout the
country confirms Fitzgerald’s (2012) argument that women mostly occupy the “basement” rather than the
“tower” within the university structure. The statistical data of
academic position by gender is displayed as follows.


2. Statistics of academic position by gender per 2016 (source: Database of the
Directorate of HE, MRTHE)

Academic Position
















statistics illustrate that although there are more men than women in the
academia, but its ratio of the basement (teaching assistant and lecturer) with
the tower (senior lecturer and professor) is a landslide gap. However, the
emergence of five women rectors has shattered the glass ceiling of gendered
representation in senior leadership positions. Such phenomena contributed to
the increasing awareness of the need to create women’s networks for HE leadership,
initiated by both the woman activists in higher education and non-governmental


Should there be an Empowerment
for Woman in HE Leadership?

To address gender inequality in the higher education
sector, strategic steps at both national and institutional levels to increase
women’s participation in decision-making and leadership in higher education in
Indonesia need to be developed. It will ensure the conditions required to bring
about impact on gender equality in universities.


Indonesia is slowly but surely moving towards the
point where the increasing awareness of the absence of women in higher
education leadership has been publicly shared and discussed. The Ministry of
Women’s Empowerment formed JKP2TI (Network for Women Leadership of Indonesian
Higher Education) in 2015 by collaborating with the MRTHE and Higher Education Leadership and
Management of USAID. Women’s Studies Centres in most of the individual
universities also play a key role as agents of change in their institutions (Dzuhayatin &
Edwards, 2010). The forum aims to prepare and support women to be
university leaders. Particularly, the forum is interested in analysing gender
inequality issues and strategic positions in the university, advocating
universities to give space, opportunity, and recruitment for women candidates
as well as formulating policies that are gender sensitive.


Those forum would be effective tools to counter the
masculine nature of higher education leadership by empowering women to occupy
senior leadership roles and positions. It needs to reach out to not only public
but also private universities across the archipelago. The collaboration between
the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the MRTHE needs to be planned more
strategically by designing affirmative action policies to address this issue.
Both ministries are the relevant regulatory bodies that cater for women and
regulate higher education. At the institutional level, decision makers’ support
is central to support gender equality and thus women’s access to leadership and



On discussing about
women, power and the ivory tower, we could have assumed that the game is
rigged. Rather than just whining, a more strategic action needs to be taken to
create the conditions for women to access power in the ivory tower.

1 Statistics obtained
from PDDIKTI through

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