Getting more women onto Boards, is there a shortcut?

Alice Johns, programmes and projects manager, Leadership Foundation, shares her insights ahead of the upcoming Women onto Boards events on what to do if you are thinking of taking the first step in applying to join a governing body. These events form part of the Leadership Foundation’s work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion within higher education.

Since 2013, the representation of women on university governing bodies has increased from 32 to 36 per cent and the number of chairs has risen from 12 to 19 per cent (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, 2016). Although this does show improvement in the diversity of higher education boards, the rate of progress is slow. Much research has been published on the value of having a diverse workforce. Why Diversity Matters (McKinsey, 2015) found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above national industry medians.

As the lead body for leadership, governance, and management within higher education, the Leadership Foundation is committed in working towards gender equality. Building on our work though the Aurora programme, the Women onto Boards initiatives aim to showcase the benefits and opportunities for women who may be thinking about serving as a governor on a higher education or non-executive body in other sectors. This serves as an important element of our work to equip leaders and governors to respond to contextual challenges in higher education.

In 2017, we journeyed to all four nations of the UK and Ireland, with our Women onto Boards series of events; welcoming 5 chairs, 15 speakers and 180 women. In 2018, we will do the same (see here for dates) hoping to reach more women who are looking at taking their first step into applying for a board position. So how can you position yourself to take this step and what are the key things we learnt from last year?

Start somewhere…

Asking to be an observer can be a good gateway if you’re not fully board ready, or a school board is a useful place to start. University committee positions can also build experience without the time commitment and lack of remuneration.

If you are planning to pursue a commercial board make sure it’s related to something you are passionate about and to your values. Remember board positions are a development opportunity but no one is born ‘board ready’.

… but plan ahead and prepare

Think about presenting your CV in a new way, as understanding any gaps in expertise the board may be in need of is key to success. Focus on your transferable skills (strategy, finance, regulation, HR) and the impact you have made within previous organisations. Highlight your connections and contacts, particularly where these are relevant to the institution and where you have cross sector experience.

Never underestimate the importance of networking! Research the organisation or institution and the makeup of the board, and the kinds of skills those sitting on it may already possess. Be prepared to invest time and check the board is functioning well before joining.

… and above all be persistent and passionate

Think of how you can make a difference and add value but be prepared to make several applications before you are accepted so persistence is key! Push yourself to go beyond your comfort zone. As women we are all familiar with imposter syndrome but be confident in your abilities and be tenacious. Displaying drive and passion could make the crucial difference between being selected for interview or not.

Above all, remember it’s about confidence, knowledge and contacts.  With all that has been in the news lately about the effectiveness of higher education governing bodies, there has never been a greater need for diverse and talented candidates. So whilst there is no shortcut, there are ways to position yourself that might make you more likely to get noticed.


For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage

Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

More information about our women-only leadership development programme, Aurora, can be found here

Chairs and vice-chancellors: the relationship

Following the performance of Crossing the Line that took place on Thursday 30 November 2017, David Williams, governance web editor, Leadership Foundation reviews the dramatisation of the exchanges and experiences between vice-chancellors and chairs of boards.

Performed by professional actors, Crossing the Line, explores the views and actions of primarily chairs of governing bodies and vice-chancellors. The name of the role-play reflects the boundaries between the responsibilities of chairs of governing bodies and vice-chancellors, and how different ‘voices’ interpret ‘the line’ in discharging their responsibilities.

Crossing the Line is based on sixteen interviews with chairs of governing bodies and heads of institutions on how they view the chair-head relationship. The writer has used the transcript of the interviews to construct a short play, which adopts the format used by Dylan Thomas in the writing of Under Milk Wood.

A recurring mantra is that the relationship between chairs and vice-chancellors should operate on the basis of ‘trust, affection and respect’. However, the characters in the role-play illustrate that the ‘the line’ is interpreted differently by individual agents. The distinction between ‘rowing and steering’ is the demarcation between the work of the executive and that of governors. An understanding of the boundary is important. In practice, ‘the line’ is either protected or transgressed.

Using different institutional contexts and characters, colourful examples of the intentions and associated actions of different chairs and vice-chancellors are introduced. Some chairs have strong predetermined views, and come to the role with a mind-set of what ‘should be done’ or ‘how’ the relationship between the two agents must operate. Some chairs or governors focus on ‘pet’ concerns, such as ‘finance’, ‘the need to have a dashboard’ or making sure “all the instruments are playing” (i.e. all members of the governing body contribute).  Similarly, some vice-chancellors are portrayed as viewing governors as a nuisance: who get in the way. A question of how influential is a chair is raised. In one case, they are described as a ‘glorified stool’.

Relations between the governing body and heads of institution vary. In some instances, the relationship is closed and too cosy, in others the relationship is more open and difficult. The question of ‘professional distance is raised’. The role-play suggests that the only ‘sanction of the Board’ if they believe they have a major problem with the institution’s head is to remove them.

The multi-faceted role of the vice-chancellor is recognised, and the role of the registrar/secretary briefly mentioned. Vice-chancellors are highly intelligent, as is the possibility that they can sometimes act in egotistical way. Constructive dialogue between the chair and the vice-chancellor is vital. The ability to raise issues in private conversations, rather than at the Board is important. Difficult conversations are sometimes needed. The possible role of the registrar/secretary to act as a ‘go between’ is noted.

Questions raised as to the membership of the governing body include, length of service, whether to seek new governors with a view to youth or experience and the need for business experience on Boards. The concern that governors don’t understand the academic context is introduced. This is tied to the risk that governors unfamiliar with higher education may believe ‘nothing is different’, when compared to how private sector Boards work.

Getting the balance between trusting and challenging the executive is important. The asymmetry of information between the executive and the governing body is captured by the phrase: “you do not know, what you do not know”.

Crossing the Line was deliberately provocative, but equally contains examples which many involved in higher education governance are likely to recognise. Those who watched the role-play commented that how the chair and vice-chancellor work together is essentially about the relationship between two people. Understanding the roles of each is critical, as is the emotional intelligence of both parties. Listening skills in particular are often important. Both parties have a responsibility to make the relationship work.

For more about this key university relationship read the new Leadership Insights Managing the Chair/Vice-Chancellor Relationship: www.lfhe.ac.uk/RushforthLI22

Coming soon 
A second performance of Crossing the Line is planned for 2018. If you are interested in attending, please complete the form below: 

More about our governance events:  http://www.lfhe.ac.uk/gdp

The 7 leadership blog posts of 2017

As part of our 12 leadership days of Christmas campaign, we are pleased to release our 7 leadership blog posts of the year.

Take some time out this festive season to read some of your colleagues’ favourite blogs of the year and take the opportunity to start thinking about the next steps in your leadership development.

You can follow the campaign by using the hastag #LF12Days 

1. Top 12 things those new to higher education need to know

Rita Walters, marketing and communications coordinator, Leadership Foundation shares the insights from colleagues at the Leadership Foundation on what they believe are the key messages for those new to higher education.

2. Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose
Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor explore connected leadership and its applications to the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme.

3. 8 ways to be a better role model

We asked our Aurora facilitation team: Vijaya Nath, Phyllida Hancock, Rosemary Stamp, Rebecca Nestor, Jenny Garrett and Maeve Lankford how to be a good role model. Based on their experience of facilitating Aurora these insights will help you make the most of your experience and be the best role model you can be.

4. Our mentorship journey: Karen Twomey and Val Cummins
Karen Twomey is a Researcher at Tyndall National Institute, Cork who took part in Aurora in Dublin in 2014-15. Karen chose, Val Cummins, Senior Lecturer at University College Cork to be her mentor for the duration of the programme and the relationship continues to this day. We asked Karen and Val to reflect on their relationship as a mentee and mentor.

5. Coaching: The advice I would give my younger self
Jean Chandler, programme director of Transition to Leadership, shares her thoughts on coaching as a skill set, approaches to leading others, and her own leadership lessons.

6. Reflections from Leadership Matters

Rachael Ross is the course director of Leadership Matters, the Leadership Foundation programme for senior women in higher education. Two years on from its inception, Rachael reflects on why the programme is needed and how it was developed.

7. Up for a challenge: self-directed group learning for leaders

If our role as educators of adults is to enhance their capacity for self-directed learning, how does that apply to leadership development training? Doug Parkin, director of the Leadership Foundation’s Future Professional Directors programme, reflects on his experience of designing transformational self-directed group learning activities for leaders.

Let us know your favourite via Twitter #LF12Days or in the comments below.


You can read more of the Leadership Foundation blogs here. 

The full list of programmes at the Leadership Foundation can be found here.