The Women Deans Of Europe: Leading The Fight For Gender Equality

Wendy Loretto, the first female dean of Edinburgh Business School

Wendy Loretto, the first female dean of Edinburgh Business School


Well north of London, Wendy Loretto, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Edinburgh Business School, this year became that school’s first female dean. The working mother has been at the school for 20 years — “a lifer,” she says with a laugh, who has seen tectonic shifts in the academic landscape in the course of her career.

“There’s been a huge amount of change not just in academia but in business, in the whole discipline, the way it’s taught, the way we conduct ourselves — huge amount of change,” says Loretto, whose area of study is the “extension of working life,” whether voluntary or necessary, of older women and men in the UK. “The fact that there are more women now at the top, in particular the full professors, I don’t think we had any (when I started), but certainly I’m the first woman to be dean. Before we were a business school we were actually a department of business study, so actually going even back to those days there’s not been a woman in charge, nor were there women professors. So actually it’s a relatively new phenomenon to have women at these senior levels.”

Edinburgh, which has offered an MBA since 1980, currently has 28 professors, of whom seven are women — so Loretto is no longer alone, “and I don’t intend to be either,” she says with another big laugh. The school boasts 918 undergraduates and 76 MBA students, with just about even representation in gender on each side.

“One of the things I’m proud of is our MBA program in particular,” Loretto says, “which is just about half and half and that’s for the fifth year in a row. In the states, it’s not dissimilar in that it’s tended to be more men than women, and I think we’ve always had a relatively high number of women in our program but to actually get that parity, in the FT (Financial Times) 100 we’re pretty much unique.”


Loretto’s path to academia also was unique. She was in a retail career and “never intended to go into academia,” but saw an ad one day in a newspaper for a multidisciplinary research center asking for people interested in studying for Ph.D.s. “Something about it took my interest and I ended up working with an alcohol research group which was based in psychiatry but multidisciplinary, and I did work on alcohol and drug use in young people and that really got me very much interested in social psychology, theories, angles. And sometimes I’m just a nosy person as well,” she adds with another laugh.

She loved the work — but right away she encountered institutionalized gender discrimination. “When I first went and started my Ph.D., in those days you only ever had temp positions, it was very rare to get tenured or open-ended positions, so it was always a series of temporary contracts … and in order to try and progress you either worked to get the next temporary contract or, indeed, when a rare permanent contract came up there were certain criteria applied, and those criteria were who had the most publications and not necessarily those who had done the work in developing courses or the more sort of collegiate-type roles.”

Loretto had done the work but she hadn’t published enough. Complicating matters, in the 1990s, after a couple of temporary contracts, she gave birth to her daughter. She only took three and a half months off for maternity leave — but it was enough to interrupt her track. Loretto continued doing the difficult and often thankless academic work of guiding students, but she was passed over for permanent positions and seemed stuck — a situation that got no better when she had her son in 2000.

Parliament saved the day. The Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations of 2002 limited the use of successive fixed-term contracts to four years from July 2006, meaning that only those jobs that were truly of a finite nature should be associated with fixed-term contracts. The University of Edinburgh didn’t wait until 2006 to change its practice — the school changed as soon as the law was passed, ending the practice of temp positions — and Loretto’s situation, like that of many women in academia, improved significantly.

“That was a major problem for women at university level: If they stepped off even for a very short time to have children or to have some sort of career break, they got passed over,” says Loretto, whose daughter is now a veterinary student at Edinburgh. “So I think we’re playing quite a long game of catch-up with that.”


Loretto’s main area of study is the literal extension of working life, with people not only living longer but working longer. The UK, and Europe as a whole, is undergoing something of a revolution, she says, where people want to work longer and the law has allowed them to do it, effectively abolishing compulsory retirement. Then there are those who have to work longer for financial reasons, “but within that there’s a wide range of motivations and attitudes to retirement and a reorientation of working life — when it used to be that over 50 was the end as a worker,” Loretto says. “But that’s very far from the case now.”

This new reality has had a profound effect on working women, she says. Part of her work has shown that many women who do lower-skilled work are not only trapped in employment longer for financial reasons, but they’re also working in combination with caring responsibilities — elder care, and frequently care of grandchildren as well. “But for another group, these are opportunities,” Loretto says. “So women that have worked roundabout their partners and their families all their lives, there’s opportunities now for them to reboot their career and in some cases go back to schools that they trained at, maybe 20, 30 years previously, and think about resurrecting themselves. It’s an opportunity to have a reinvention, if you like.”

Loretto cites her research when asked whether she has advice for younger women in academia whose careers are just getting underway.

“There’s almost like the rush to progress and to make professor as quickly as possible,” she says, “and thinking of my own research area, they’re probably all going to be in work a lot longer — so partly, what’s the rush and what do you do then? But also, play the long game. I was always concerned about not getting on, about not getting contracts, about looking around and seeing that people were progressing more quickly than me, that the male colleagues got more publications — but actually it’s not a volume game, and I think you realize that the more you’re in it.

“Actually if you’re in it, we’re about educating students and researching. It’s not about the number of publications but more about, does anybody read it, does it make a difference beyond academia? So I think it’s that slightly different model. I think there’s more acceptance of different pathways to be successful, going through different routes.”

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