I was brought up in a small city in the secular environment of which my family made no distinction between my two elder brothers and me in terms of education and opportunities they provided for us. As a teenager I dreamed to be an architect. My dream was realized when I was accepted to the best university -ITU- in Turkey at that time to study architecture. Following my graduation with a master’s degree my supervisor asked me to consider staying in academia. Although my aspiration was to design and construct buildings I was so much honoured by her proposal that I decided to do my PhD. I received all my degrees from the same university with international experiences abroad and was finally promoted to professorship in architecture.
Throughout the years I have had the chance to realise my aspirations of designing and constructing buildings. I would, however, never have imagined to be the rector of my university. To make a long story short, I found myself as the first female vice rector of my university in 1992. I was also elected to be the first female rector of the same university in 1996. I served two terms between the years of 1996 and 2004 with great pride and honour, with an excellent team and unprecedented support of alumni and academic staff. We worked hard. Yet we enjoyed working together towards achieving profound reforms in our university. Success was based mainly on the university’s top notch human resources, its capacity for change, capabilities to control the internal and external constraints.
When I was elected as the rector of Istanbul Technical University I received many calls from the journalists asking for interviews. Key note invitations from the native as well as foreign universities followed. Their main question was “How did you, as a woman, manage to be the rector of a Technical University which is a male dominated institution?” It was the first time in my life that I faced the “gender problem”. Although I immediately answered such questions as “I have always had support, no barriers at all” this was a turning point in my life. Thinking about my academic life I started to look at everything from a different point of view trying to develop a gender perspective towards all the processes in decision making and implementations.
After I stepped down from the rectorship I was asked to be a partner in one of the EC funded projects in which we evaluated our universities in terms of gender equality in STEM areas to find out the barriers, obstacles and resistance towards women academics’ recruitment and promotion processes. As we started to collect data in 2006 on women academics in ITU we realised that in the 1995-2005 period when I served first as a vice rector and then the rector of the university the representation of women academics in all grades made a big progress. The proportions of women among full professors went up from 16% to 29%, associate professors from 31% to 36%, assistant professors from 28% to 46% and research assistants from 20% to 37%. Women’s total share in the academic positions was raised from 29% to 37%.
When we queried why 1995-2005 period was so unique in terms of the unexpected increase in the visibility of women academics in different grades we saw that the policies implemented in that period had been very effective in encouraging women academics to crack the glass ceiling. Many of our female respondents also reported that having a female role model in the top authority position of the university had created enormous impact on them.
When we come together to share our experiences as female rectors we all understand and admit the importance of role models. We also accept that gender sensitive policies and strategies help to achieve better gender balance in our institutions. That is why we have been organizing our “Beyond the Glass Ceiling” biennial conferences since 2008. As our numbers increased we also decided to form the “European Women Rectors Platform” (EWRP) in 2010.
At the 2014 conference we designed “Istanbul recommendations” addressing academic leaders, national authorities and supra- national organizations. Following that we decided to establish an international association in Brussels under the Belgian Law. Eventually, on the initiative of the seven members of the EWRP, “European Women Rectors Association” (EWORA) was born in December 2015.
EWORA is formed with the awareness that challenges lie ahead. We must strive to achieve gender balance in our universities. We must work to provide equal opportunities for female and male academics. We must address low representation of women at decision making levels and STEM areas. We must be sensitive to all sorts of vertical and horizontal segregation in higher education and research. As scientists we feel accustomed to deal with the reality. We are also determined to be optimistic designing our hopes for our future achievements towards a better world for all.
Dear Colleagues, we have a long way to go… As H.T Collard says, success is a journey not a destination…
Prof. Gulsun Saglamer
President of EWORA