Women and leadership: Challenges to women empowerment in academic leadership roles in Saudi Arabia

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Maha B. Bin Bakr


The gender gap in leadership in Saudi Arabian higher education circles is significant, persistent, and systemic. This study empirically investigates the barriers and challenges identified as obstacles to women empowerment in leadership roles at Imam Abdulrahman University (IAU). In addition, it highlights the encouragement and support that women leaders identify as important to their empowerment. All women faculty holding leadership positions at IAU were sampled, and a total of 74 valid responses (representing 90.2%) were collected. A survey research design was used to collect the data, and respondents were asked to indicate the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the items using a 5-point Likert-type scale.

The results suggest that the respondents had a higher level of agreement toward the barriers and challenges related to work environment and organizational culture (mean 3.71 and 3.59; standard deviation SD 0.77 and 0.78, respectively) compared to the barriers related to their personal life which scored a neutral level of agreement (m = 2.66; SD = 0.73); the overall level of agreement to all the barriers and challenges was neutral (m = 3.42; SD = 0.60).The findings also indicate a statistically significant difference among the groups based on the respondent’s leadership position (p<0.05); however, no significant difference was found based on the respondents’ own leadership position or their supervisors’ gender (p>0.05). Furthermore, the findings show that there is no significant difference between empowerment challenges and gender after adjusting for leadership experience and years of experience (p>0.05). It may be concluded that female and male leaders have a similar influence on the barriers and challenges of women empowerment in attaining leadership roles at IAU. Owing to the interconnectedness between the identified barriers and challenges to women empowerment, this study suggests that more concentrated and fundamental efforts are needed to achieve gender parity at IAU by narrowing and eventually eliminating these barriers. A variety of recommendations to the IAU senior leadership are presented, which include developing a center for women leadership that serves as a platform for networking and mentoring as well as offering training and development programs for current and future women leaders.


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