Inspiring Women


By Tom Irvine

I’ve been inspired by two women this week. One of them is Janet Beer, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes. She gave a very frank and candid interview  recently where she described the challenges she faced as she built her career. I was struck by her ability to balance the demands of family and professional life – and the struggle that many women face when it comes to reconciling those demands. We hear a lot about glass ceilings and the macho culture that dominate our institutions – perhaps factors that – as Janet points out – do result in only 10% of VCs being female. I’ll come back to this if I may when I reflect upon the Leadership Foundation’s female-only *Aurora leadership programme for early career aspiring leaders.

The other woman who has inspired me is my wife Helena. We laughed at each other some years ago when we were both sitting on the settee, side-by-side, reading magazines. The telly was off, the bairns tucked up in bed, and we had a bottle of wine to share. We looked over at each other at the same time – just as you do. We laughed, shook our heads, and got back to our reading. I was reading the Sainsbury’s magazine looking at recipes and she was reading What Car checking out the brake horsepower of the new car she fancied. That pretty much sums us up.

But why am I inspired by Helena? Partly because she manages that balance of family and career and partly because of the way she does it. She has a tough job as a housing director – a job that I just couldn’t begin to comprehend. But equally we have each made very significant compromises to make that balance happen for each of us. But she does it with grace, patience and a sense of humour.

I once had a job in London that took me out of the house– from early to late five days a week while we lived in Yorkshire. That really hurt Helena’s career – but we had agreed it was ‘my turn’ to have the time to attend to mine. She took over the caring responsibilities. On the other hand we have moved home twice to follow her career and family needs. I was a management consultant when we made our move from Chester to Worcester so that she could take up her first directorship in Birmingham. That hurt my consultancy business for a couple of years, but it went with the territory. All the way through our marriage we have played this game of swings and roundabouts – where we took turns at scaling the greasy career pole, with the other doing more of the childcare and homemaking.

What’s all this got to do with a women-only leadership programme? We hear a lot about the many barriers to women as they try against the odds to build a career that has some balance to it. These cannot and should not be underestimated. The LF’s most popular research work (by a country mile) is Louise Morley’s stonkingly good Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations. The new Aurora programme is seeking to do something practical about this.

I do have a fear though that some men are part of the problem here, and not just the collective ‘macho’ culture. I had to learn to be more fair-minded I must admit, and it wasn’t easy for many years. But I had a patient teacher. My hope is that as the years pass that couples will increasingly engage in that very difficult game of swings and roundabouts. Men may have to accept greater responsibility for parenting to help their partners make their career transitions. My hope is that the Aurora programme will help aspiring women leaders to ‘fix the men’ and to help create a fairer balance based on merit and not gender – or any other ‘difference’ for that matter. Buy your man a subscription to BBC Good Food and laugh while he reads it – it will do him the world of good!

Tom Irvine, leads the LF’s Consulting team

*The Aurora programme begins this autumn in London, and will also run in Bristol, Manchester & Glasgow.

1 thought on “Inspiring Women

  1. Thank you for pointing out that men are part of the problem! It’s not just about getting the job but also having the support when you do.

    I admire the fairness you and Helena have used to balance out the different responsibilities and ambitions – thanks very much for sharing.

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