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Nine in ten university presidents are male and local-born: institutions must broaden search and selection to achieve true diversity at the top.

  • March 2012

A global survey of academic leadership by Egon Zehnder, covering 300 premier institutions, underlines the extent of the diversity challenge and the importance of solving it.

Berlin, 27 March 2012 – A global survey of the world’s premier universities and research institutes, conducted by Egon Zehnder, a leading global executive search firm, reveals that only 12% of top academic leaders are women, only 10% are foreign nationals and only a third have spent two or more years abroad. Such low levels of diversity could pose serious obstacles to institutions’ innovation and competitiveness.

Egon Zehnder undertook the research to spark discussion on how to strengthen diversity amongst academic leaders – including through broadening search and selection, tailoring employment conditions, and reforming government policy.
To create a global fact base, Egon Zehnder analyzed the curricula vitae of more than 300 Rectors, Presidents, Vice-Chancellors and CEOs at top academic institutions across Europe, the USA and Asia. Expert interviews and in-depth analysis shed light on the underlying reasons for the findings and highlighted areas for action.

The research findings should worry governing boards. The report emphasizes that diversity is a major driver of innovation and excellence. Diversity of viewpoint, beyond simply promoting representation of particular demographic groups, enriches discussion and decision-making amongst leadership teams and enables them to tackle familiar problems in new ways.

The report was authored by a global team of consultants at Egon Zehnder, among them Joanne W. Yun (US), Norbert Sack (Europe), and Hnn-Hui Hii (Asia). They argue that one important step to strengthen the diversity of academic leadership must be to professionalize the search and selection process for top positions. This involves actively searching for diverse talent across all major markets, and adopting a structured evaluation process that avoids unconscious biases against nontraditional candidates. Such an approach can bring a much broader and more diverse pool of candidates to the table.

For the full results contact Martin Klusmann at

Results in detail:

The leaders assessed were overwhelmingly male and local-born, with an average age of around 60. Only a third of them had spent two or more years of their career abroad.

In some countries, however, the findings were more positive. In the USA and Scandinavia, the percentage of women in top leadership positions was double the global average, reflecting concerted efforts in those regions to strengthen gender diversity. And in Singapore, more than half the academic leaders identified were foreign, reflecting a conscious drive by that country to recruit leading foreign academics in line with a vision to create top-ranked international universities.

These success stories underline the fact that there are already many successful leaders of premier academic institutions who do not fit the traditional “male, local and 60ish” profile – and that there is a diverse pool of exceptional leadership talent worldwide.

To attract that talent, though, academia must overcome some serious barriers. In many countries, for example academic salary scales are inflexibly linked to those of the civil service, making it very difficult to attract top international academics. To address this, greater use can be made of arrangements such as job rotations and limited-term contracts.


Egon Zehnder
Corporate Communications
Dr. Ulrike Krause
Duesseldorf, Germany
+49 211 55 02 85 10

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