Fortune Befriends the Bold

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Photograph: Nationaal Archief/Flickr: Sylvia Pankhurst protesting in London in 1932.

Vijaya Nath, director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation, reflects on the work the higher education sector has ahead of it to close the gender leadership gap.

As we come to the end of Women’s History month I and colleagues have reflected on the now established annual campaign for equality and ask what more do we need to do to make the changes still needed in 2017?

On 8 March 1977 the United Nations (UN) general assembly invited member states to make this date the UN day for women’s rights (and world peace). Fast forward to 2017, forty years on from that date we are still fighting for 50:50 recognition and economic empowerment – a goal set to be realised by 2030. The UN tasked all member states to work across all sectors to a common goal –where gender inequality no longer exists. Reflecting on how this movement can be tracked back to events from 1909 in New York to 1913 in Russia and to 8 March 1914 in London, when Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charring Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square, I realise that this documented fight for equality has gone on for over one hundred years.

Like many, I have lived the past 40 years believing that our work and contribution as women would be recognised and given parity. I feel the frustration of another generation of girls, daughters, sisters, women, facing a world in which objects and emotions are still gendered. A world in which our gender is still seen as barriers to progression as opposed to being celebrated for the gifts it brings. In the words of Harriet Minter, writer on women in leadership, a world where ‘Speaking out is still an act of courage…’.

The glacial pace of change on women achieving equality continues to be met by marches and marching and recently to a number of symbolic and quiet protests. As I and hundreds of thousands more participated in Global marches like @Womensmarch, #BridgesNotWalls and as I think back on the recent honouring of suffragettes by the Democratic women who staged a quiet protest wearing white outfits to the newly elected President’s first formal address to congress #WomenWearWhite, I wonder how much longer we will have to march before we achieve equality? My colleagues in America ask when will a woman be the leader of ‘the free world?’

This month we saw the publication of Tom Schuller’s book that provokes a discussion focused on ‘The Paula Principle’ (converse to ‘The Peter Principle’ a term coined in the 60s to describe people rising to leadership roles – who are judged to be less than competent but who keep on rising until they are found out – many of us have witnessed this in our working life). Schuller reinforces the well-rehearsed and identified barriers to women progressing; straight discrimination on basis of gender; structural barriers such as affordability and access to child care; the lower self-belief and confidence that some women identify as barriers to progressing; women lacking ‘vertical’ networks including mentors and sponsors higher up organisations or systems. Schuller’s fifth factor that women may be exercising a ‘positive choice’ in not opting to choose leadership will be the area that prompts most discussion. The hypothesis that ‘working women tend to stick at a level below that of their full competence and qualification’ is one that requires us women to speak up whether we go for the top or not!

Throughout my career I have witnessed and have been privileged to be part of organisations where supporting women to achieve their potential has been a core value. I have seen the Royal College of Surgeons elect its first female President in its 214 year history, and we have seen the appointment of a woman as this nation’s top Police officer. Both Clare Marx and Cressida Dick have ‘shattered ceilings’. There are many other notable breakthroughs which reinforce that we can break with past traditions and create cultures in which women at all ages thrive and are able to bring the gifts that their gender brings to the culture and leadership of our organisations, institutions and the world. None, in my opinion, more valuable than the cultures in which we are educating the future generations of women and men. Universities are a way off achieving the 50:50 by the 2030 goal.  However the movement created and awareness raised through over 6000 women’s participation in our Aurora programme has produced a large ripple. These 6000 have each in turn impacted on at least a further 10 colleagues – enabling over 60,000 men and women to have conversations on making change happen and encouraging women in higher education to find their way to leadership should this be their goal. Featured in the Times Higher Education and The Guardian, the need for positive, progressive action like Aurora is a mission that we all must share, starting with these 6000.

Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day, colleagues and I encouraged and tried to influence wherever possible using the theme #BeBoldForChange to continue the march towards achieving equality. I hope that 8 March 2017 and Women’s History month in particular ushers in and invites boldness, risk taking and moving beyond marches. As Emily Dickinson wrote ‘Fortune befriends the bold’. Let us make 2017 a year in which we realise tangible outcomes from being bold. Please share your acts of Boldness in higher education with us by leaving comments on our blog pages and through the #LFAurora hashtag.


Vijaya Nath is the director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation. She leads the Aurora programme, a women-only leadership development initiative created to proactively address the under-representation of women in leadership in higher education.

Dates for Aurora year 5 will be released shortly. If you would like to be the first to know please email the Aurora team, e: aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.