A biographical study of six women in leadership positions in Higher Education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

  • Wazerah Bawazeer

Student thesis: Phd


Abstract This study explores the reported professional biographies of women who hold senior positions in higher education in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, using their personal experiences to highlight how they have come into these roles, what has influenced them since their childhood to take up these positions and how their gender affected the choices they have made throughout their educational and professional paths. This research also draws out the nature and types of leadership roles they have had, the role of gender in fulfilling them and the manner in which women are handling these positions, on top of all the other challenges they also face. This study is also interested in examining the interaction between the socialisation process and identity to generate new insights into the way the professional identities of academic leadership have been, and continue to be, constructed and developed among Saudi women throughout their life, helping researchers to understand complex cultural issues. Therefore, this study focuses on examining the interaction between the agency of the Saudi woman who hold a high organisational position, the structuring context of this role, the organisation and wider cultural norms in the formation and development of their professional and personal identities, and with the notion of a conflict and struggle between these multiple identities when they are in senior positions. The data for this study has been collected from a sample of six women who hold senior headship positions in six different universities around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; these positions are the Dean of the Female Section, the Vice Dean of the Female Section, and the Vice Dean of Faculty. The biographical research approach is used to achieve the key aims of this study. This approach uses the stories and data from personal documentation to understand the life of each individual within its social context. One of the methods, the Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM), is employed through three biographical narrative interviews conducted with each of the six participants. In addition, primary documents and autobiographies comprising the participants’ Curriculum Vitae and diaries, and some official material such as job descriptions, were collected and analysed. These materials addressed a number of objectives; they were utilised as pre-interview reference material to make the interview questions more informed and direct; they were analysed in order to address the research questions by building up relevant information; and they also helped to present an overview of the events, emotions, and experiences that have shaped the lives and professional experiences of the selected women who hold high positions. This study highlighted the importance of early socialisation, which has been associated with shaping the women’s perceptions and skills; in addition, holding positions and practicing leadership responsibilities honed their personal skills as leaders throughout the course of their career in leadership. This study reveals that the Dean of the Female Section, Vice Dean of the Female Section, and the Vice Dean of Faculty all seem to hold the highest possible positions for women at their universities, but nevertheless stand between senior leadership and the rest of the departments. They reported that they have very limited opportunities and authority and lack of access to the resources they need to make decisions that are important for their sections, despite the fact that females comprise more than 60 per cent of the students enrolled in university. Gender has been raised as the main challenge that hinders women from advancing in leadership positions. The findings also show that the society’s gender stereotyping and attitudes towards women, and the gender divisions within the labour culture, impede women from full participation in the top levels of the managerial function. There are many issues emerging that affect the participants’ professional identity in this study. These issues were mainly linked to their perceptions of what represents academic identity, their self-image as leaders, the status they had gained, the interplay between personal and professional identities, and how they felt moving away from core academic responsibilities to a primarily administrative role. This study contributes significantly to the very limited body of literature about women and educational leadership in higher education in Saudi Arabia and raises more academic concerns in this field. It reveals the demand for the design of more advanced leadership programmes and policies to ensure equal participation of men and women in university leadership.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMelvyn West (Supervisor) & Helen Gunter (Supervisor)


  • Role socialisation
  • Diaries
  • Curriculum Vitae
  • Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM)
  • socialisation
  • Higher education
  • identity
  • Job Descriptions
  • gender
  • women in Leadership
  • professional identity
  • fictional stories

Cite this