10 things we learned about the experiences of women working in higher education

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Examining the conclusions from a recent report by the Leadership Foundation, Louise Clifton reviews the 10 key things we’ve learned about about women’s leadership journeys.

Across the world, it will be 170 years until we achieve gender parity.

For higher education, women continue to be under-represented in senior leadership roles. To understand how to create a more equal, diverse, leadership, and how we can get there quicker, we need to know more about the experiences of women working in the sector right now.

Over the last 18 months we have been in contact with over 1500 women about their experiences of working in higher education – from work-life balance to leadership capabilities and opportunities for development. We reached 10 key conclusions that will help the sector understand the opportunities and challenges that women face, and to start to make progressive, positive, action.

Led by an expert research team at Loughborough University, here’s what we know so far:

Message 1 – Above and beyond

86% of women indicate that their job requires them to influence over others over whom they have no authority. Many women have an appetite for leadership and seek it out, but there is a danger that asking women to go ‘above and beyond’ will mean they continue to go, and feel, unrecognised.

Message 2 – We do have the skills

Many women are confident that they possess the relevant leadership skills but more could be done to support women to implement their skills in a political workplace, which in turn could help women overcome structural inhibitors.

Message 3 – The workplace

Promotion and development opportunities are believed to be opaque and poorly run. Real and perceived barriers are prevalent, and the sector needs to do more to communicate a transparent, fair, process for career advancement.

Message 4 – Keep giving us your support

Respondents told us that there are supportive managers, leaders and mentors working in higher education, and team-work and co-operation are often encouraged. Continuing to invest in these practices will help institutions navigate experienced and perceived negative workplace practices.

Message 5 – Diverse motives

It’s a mixed bag whether respondents seek skill development with the intention of progressing their career. Being an expert in one’s domain, to be of service to the organisation and a desire for job security ranked higher than seeking out top leadership positions.  (This doesn’t mean women are uninterested in leadership activities within their work roles, however)

Message 6 – Flexible flexibility

Survey data suggest that some women believe flexible working is taken as a sign that they are not serious about their career. Cultivating a sense that working non-traditional hours does not indicate someone is less committed will be key to unlocking potential for those with commitments outside of the traditional 9-5 work practices.

Message 7 – More career management, please

On the whole, women seek out opportunities to build their skills, increase their visibility and maintain their networks. However institutions could do more to encourage women to go beyond their ‘norm’ and really get under the skin of where they want their career to go, and to support them to get there.

Message 8 – Aurora is clearly helping

Although there is still a long way to go, Aurora, a women-only leadership development programme, has given women more confidence and they report that their leadership skillsets have increased. On the whole, Aurorans seek out and ‘do’ more leadership.

Message 9 – The divide

Women working in professional services are generally more positive than their academic colleagues about workplace culture and practices. They have a more positive sense that they are better prepared for leadership roles and report greater confidence in their knowledge of how their organisation runs.

Message 10 – what’s in ethnicity?

BAME respondents reported less positive views of the culture of their workplace. However, these groups consider themselves ambitious, highly work-centered and focused on skills development. There is huge potential here to nurture this ambition.

Why wait 170 years when we could be pushing harder for greater equality, diversity and inclusion?

Insights like these will be instrumental to bring about positive change, faster.

These 10 conclusions are drawn from the first year report of a five-year longitudinal study. The largest of its kind, this study will continue to track women’s experiences and journeys over the next four years, and will identify the impact of Aurora, the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership programme.

Read the summary report here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Y1aurorasummary

And the long report with data analysis here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/Y1aurorareport

To discover more about the study, visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/aurorastudy

Louise Clifton is the senior marketing coordinator at the Leadership Foundation. An Aurora alumna, she works closely with the research team at Loughborough University to communicate the findings from this five-year longitudinal study.