Dee Burn, Director of Red Kite Marketing Insight, talks about her experience on Aurora during her career as head of communications and external relations at the University of London.
The Aurora programme offered me – as a mid-career woman – a unique and welcome opportunity for career reflection and the inspiration to make a change. Since participating in its inaugural programme, I was inspired to set up my own company and I am enjoying the challenges that this new phase in my career is offering me.
I joined the inaugural Aurora programme back in 2013, having been nominated to participate along with three other colleagues from my university. I didn’t know a lot about the programme prior to joining, but the concept of a female-focused initiative to drive equality in the higher education sector was something that I felt strongly about.
Prior to Aurora, I had been working as a higher education administrator for 13 years – in both the US and the UK – in fundraising, marketing and communications roles. It was when I became a head of marketing and communications that I truly began to experience the challenges of being a woman in the sector. I quickly realised that the norm at senior staff committees, working groups and professional conferences was to have a male chair and for men to outnumber women. It was mostly the case that men held the more senior roles, and the majority of women that I met were in more junior posts. The scenario was repeated across decision-making bodies and in career development projects. Just a year before Aurora started, I participated in an excellent Future Leaders in HE programme, but the number of male participants was twice the number of female. I also witnessed numerous appointments of male candidates to senior posts, even when the number of female shortlisted candidates outnumbered their male counterparts. It so often felt it was a case of ‘the right man for the job’.
There have been more personally directed displays of sexism. I was asked at a committee meeting, where I was one of only two women among 12, to make the coffee by a senior male colleague at a self-service counter (thankfully an equally senior colleague, also male, offered to make the coffee himself to save me from what would have been an embarrassing situation and one that I was not yet equipped to handle). I also recently discovered that another colleague frequently referred to”me as ‘the blonde bombshell’ to other senior colleagues; he has subsequently retired.
I’m not saying that HE or my university are particularly sexist environments – they, like our society contain sexist individuals – but I strongly believe that a sector dedicated to sharing and creating knowledge for all should be at the forefront of championing a culture of equality within its own structures at least.
“In an ideal world, university managers would resolve the inequalities that invariably exist; statements and policies would change the situation. But it is not an ideal world, and much bias is unconscious.”
I’m not sure what my expectations for the Aurora programme were. I guess I expected more concrete training and guidance and less emphasis on reflection. Aurora offered a unique opportunity to attend a woman-only event, to meet and to hear from other women in the sector at various levels and in myriad roles, both academic and administrative. The main benefits for me were to have the opportunity for a reflective day out of the office, to hear personal experiences from female leaders, to focus on creating and making a plan to achieve my career goals, and to network. Through the active learning component in particular, I met a fantastic group of women that I would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise, and I am still in contact with them almost two years later.
As a mid-career woman, the challenges of managing an increasingly complex set of responsibilities that span both strategic and detailed tasks, managing a team, regular attendance at senior management meetings, and finding your longer-term career path can seem an impossible task. Something must invariably give. The periods of self-reflection that Aurora encouraged me to have, showed me that what had given was my career. I had chosen to focus on delivering high quality work, often at personal sacrifice, rather than selecting the more strategic elements in support of my longer-term career goals. I had always grabbed the option of staying late into the evening to complete tasks that no one ever knew about, rather than go to one of the many evening networking events I received invitations to, or taking the chance to speak in front of hundreds about one of my projects at a university staff meeting. The results of my choice were increased responsibility but when I requested a review of my salary given five years of changes, my existing rate was deemed appropriate given my responsibility levels. And similarly, when I think of my colleagues, those that have moved onto the next rung are invariably men, most of my female counterparts have stayed at the mid-level.
It is challenges like these, about managing the transition from mid to senior level, that seem to be so difficult and yet so crucial to those of us hoping to make the same jump. And yet we hardly ever hear how these transitions are made. Aurora created an environment that allowed mid-level career women to ask senior career women about these times in their life and for these stories to be shared among many. It showed me that as a woman, I must challenge the accepted norm that men are in charge by promoting myself to a position of leadership. That I must believe in myself and inspire others to do so. Ultimately, it is only when it becomes normal to see intelligent, brilliant, inspiring female leaders alongside male leaders that we will be able to break down the prejudices that exist in the ivory towers, however conscious or otherwise.
The Aurora programme motivated me to make a change in my then current role, by leaving to start up my own company as a freelance marketing consultant specialising in the HE sector. Since then, I have embraced the challenge of setting up a company, managing its finances and taxes, and I have secured a steady stream of clients through existing networks. I will need to begin self-promoting myself soon, which is not something I feel very comfortable doing, but this is a valuable Aurora learning and one I am committed to succeeding in this time around.
It has been a privilege to meet and hear from such an inspiring group of women – current and future leaders of higher education – and to continue to hear from other participants. I would strongly recommend taking part in the programme because the opportunity to network so widely, to share experiences and to have the time to focus on your own career plan is very rare indeed. And as women in a male-dominated society, we really do need to take every opportunity we can to even out the differences because change won’t come to us. And, in turn, universities should do more than simply tick the box by signing up to sending a handful of staff on the Aurora programme.
Dee Burn is the Director of Red Kite Marketing Insight, and formerly head of communications and external relations at the University of London. Dee took part in year one of Aurora in 2013.
This article was originally published on the Apex Woman website.