Get a mentor, be a mentor

Mentoring quote: "The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." Steven SpielbergCat Turhan, policy officer at GuildHE and Shân Wareing, pro vice-chancellor education and student experience at London South Bank University and Aurora speaker, have both had positive experiences of mentoring, and its power to support women’s careers. A generation apart in age, they compare some of those experiences.

What does having a mentor mean to you?
Cat: One of the most important things about mentoring is that there isn’t a fixed definition or relationship. Having a mentor has meant different things at the different stages of my life and career. The three most significant mentors for me were Judy Ryder, Jacqui Clements, and Kate Dolan from Warwick Students’ Union during my time as welfare and campaigns officer, and then president. Judy was not only someone who taught me about how to be an effective trustee, but helped me think strategically about where I wanted my career to go, and how to make that happen. Jacqui taught me how to be an effective leader by modelling great leadership: she showed me that women could be leaders by being themselves – and that kindness, passion and principles were more important than anything.

Finally, Kate gave me space and patience to help me articulate what I was worried about, and showed me great empathy and kindness when I was finding things particularly stressful. I found her experience very reassuring – whatever I was feeling was normal, and never impossible to solve. What has also been wonderful about these relationships is that even though I have moved to a different organisation, we are still very close – and I still turn to them when I need advice.

Shân: I had one formal mentor, at a time of job transition. I asked a senior women I very much respected for her leadership, intelligence, calmness and warmth, Carole Baume, to mentor me when I became a Dean. I was worried about the impact of a promotion on my family life, and wanted to make sure I could balance the two parts of my life. Her mentorship helped me articulate what I was worried about, and her example made me believe I could do it. It helped me see a way forward beyond my own knowledge and confidence levels. I’ve also had lots of informal mentorships, where I asked someone further along their career path than for help. Shout outs to Linda Thomas and Sally Brown in particular, who helped me with job decisions! My colleague and friend Nancy Turner gave me a tiny replica of an inuksuk, a First Nation’s people statue, which in real life are giant stone monuments that stand on the horizon to show travellers that people have journeyed that way previously. They symbolise ‘you are not the first, it is possible’. That’s what mentoring means to me.

What does it mean to you to be a mentor?
Shân: I want to give something back. Life experience is easy to share and what I hope is that it accelerates the career journey for other people, and perhaps takes some of the stress and uncertainty out of it. When I mentor, the other person says what they want out of the process, and we make an informal agenda out of their questions, and talk through them at agreed intervals. It’s like helping someone see round a corner, and navigate that turn in their life.

How do mentoring relationships arise? (Formal/informal)
Shân: The formal relationships have happened when I asked someone to mentor me, and gave a reason (a transition to a more senior, more demanding job with a longer commute, when I had young children). When someone has come up to me and asked me to mentor them, it’s also been because they felt they were facing a particular dilemma they couldn’t quite see past.

Cat: Some mentoring relationships are developed from the professional circumstances or working environment. My current line manager, Kate Wicklow, is an amazing mentor – not only for helping me navigate HE policy, but also for advising me on how to strengthen my policy skills and confidence. However, she might not have been my mentor if she wasn’t already my boss. In the students’ union, sabbatical officers were paired up with mentors who were the senior managers of the organisation, as were student trustees with non-student directors (who were selected for having previous board experience). I think organisations that understand the benefit of mentoring show that they really value staff development. It certainly helped me grow as a person, and seek out different mentoring relationships in future roles.

Who initiates the mentoring relationship? Can the other person refuse?
Shân: It’s always been the mentee who initiates the relationship, in my experience. I turned down a request once, where I barely knew the person, and I have been turned down, twice, by people who said they were too busy.

Cat: Organisations can facilitate relationships, but ultimately it has to be down to the mentee to want it. Recently, an ex-colleague asked me if I would mentor one of her members of staff, as I have relevant experience in her chosen career path – so occasionally they come from surprising places.

How much challenge do you welcome / can you tolerate from a mentor?
Shân: I think ideally there is enough trust between the mentor and the mentee for the mentor to challenge the mentee quite robustly, but it has to feel safe. Knowing where that boundary is and not going beyond it into territory that may feel too challenging, or bullying, is really important. If the mentee doesn’t want to have a particular conversation, the mentor needs to respect that.

Cat: I think that depends on the context of the relationship. Mentors have to build trust and understand the mentee’s background before they challenge them directly, but in turn mentees should expect a mentoring relationship to be challenging them in order for them to progress.

Is a mentor purely professional, or do they overlap into your life outside work?Cat: I would count some of the most significant mentors in my life as great friends. A successful mentor understands the whole person, including any personal issues that person wishes to divulge. Having that in-depth understanding of someone can lead to a friendship.

Shân: definitely about the overlap, in my experience. Not to advise on how to live life outside work, but to talk about how professional and domestic life fit together.

Is it more important for women to have mentors/to be mentors?
Cat: There is already a systemic bias against women achieving in the workplace, and it is even worse for women of colour, for LGBTQ women, disabled women, and working class women. Women who have navigated through the system in spite of those biases have so much to teach younger women who are trying to do the same. There is a famous quote from Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State of the USA) – ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’. I’ve always tried to live my life by that quote, and hope that I will be in a position to mentor people in the future.

Shân: We still don’t have so many women in senior positions yet that it’s easy to see how women’s careers grow, so seeing someone in a similar field as yourself in a more senior position gives women insights into what’s required. The tensions between caring responsibilities and work trajectories are real, and hard to navigate. Women can find themselves in teams where they feel out of place, and talking to someone who has navigated that about how to be part of that team but retain your integrity and sense of self is very important.

How do you know when you have been a successful mentor?
Shân: When I am mentoring, I can see usually by someone’s next actions whether they are able to move on past whatever they were concerned about. You don’t know really what goes on in some else’s head, but you can see if they feel able to act positively. I do think mentors, like teachers, send people out into the world and often don’t know the effect they had, so it’s good to say thank you. I just wrote to my school English teacher to tell him what I am doing now, and that I am still grateful to him for teaching me Julius Caesar in 1981, and how my life changed because he inspired me to go to university.

If a mentor has feet of clay, does it matter?
Shân: No, it’s part of the deal! We all muddle through with our flaws, and recognising you don’t have to be perfect to get a job done, be good enough, and go home at the end of the day, is part of what you learn from mentors who are human just like you and me.

Cat: Absolutely not! If anything, it enhances the relationship. The stories where my mentors have made mistakes – and how they handled them – have been fundamental to the way I have treated mistakes in my own life. Women are often told that they have to be superwoman in order to succeed, and I think these narratives are particularly damaging to our self esteem and mental health. Flawed women are also successful women, and my mentors taught me that.

How long do mentoring relationships last? What’s the frequency and length of mentoring conversations?
Shân: The literature on mentoring tends to describe it as a long relationship, over years, but my experience has been of quite short relationships, to deal with particular transitions or issues. I think that’s a more flexible model that’s easier to adopt, and less commitment on both sides. It also allows for the growth of the mentee, who may need different guides at different career and life stages.

Cat: I think relationships can wax and wane, depending on the needs of the mentee, and the availability of both parties. Some relationships are very ‘of the moment’, whereas others will last for years. I think it is crucial that both parties communicate often and honestly. There should also be respect for the other’s commitments, priorities, and changes to their life which may have an impact on the relationship.

We hope by sharing our positive and varied experiences of mentoring, we have inspired and encouraged you to seek mentors, and to offer mentoring, as part of your career journey.

Many of our leadership programmes have mentoring or sponsorship elements to them, read about the sponsorship toolkit. You can also read others’ experiences of mentoring via blogs here and here. We are now accepting Aurora programme bookings for 2018-19 – find out more here.

Does university organisational culture alienate women staff?

Men shaking hands while a woman is taking notesTo tie-in with April’s “Demystifying Finance” workshop, John Arnold, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Loughborough University, examines reports from women university staff on how they experience engaging (or not) with their organisation’s systems and cultures.

My colleagues Sarah Barnard, Fehmidah Munir, Sara Bosley and I are conducting the five-year “Onwards and Upwards” project on the leadership and career experiences of women in academic and professional services roles in UK and Republic of Ireland higher education. This work is funded by the Leadership Foundation, which is now part of Advance HE. Drawing on data from 2,240 women over the first two years of the project (most but not all of whom have participated in the Aurora leadership programme), we have noticed, as others have, that many women find engaging with their workplace systems and culture problematic.

For example, just one fifth of our respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they enjoyed the cut and thrust of organisational politics. Over half reported that they felt they had to behave in ways that did not come naturally to them if they wanted to “get on”. Two in five felt that they conformed to the organisational culture more than they would like to, whilst just 30% reported that they made a point of challenging organisational culture.

On the other hand, there were some signs of greater comfort and engagement too. Nearly two thirds said that when they had power they were comfortable using it. More than half reported that they knew a lot about how their employing organisation runs. This increased from 55% to 66% between years 1 and 2 of our project, but there is a large difference between professional services staff and academics. The former are much more likely to agree. What greater incentive could there be for academic women to learn how to demystify finance!

The Aurora programme seems to make a difference. About one third of Aurora “graduates” report that participating in the programme has helped them be more adept at turning organisational systems to their advantage. The same applies to openly challenging the systems or culture. (In both cases, almost no respondents said that Aurora reduced this). Nearly 60% of Aurorans said that the programme had helped them feel more comfortable in positions of authority.

Despite these impacts of Aurora, we believe it is vital not to place the main responsibility for change on individual women, nor to ”blame the victim” for feeling uncomfortable about engaging with organisational systems and culture. Some of our respondents attributed it to women’s lack of confidence, though many of these pointed out that this confidence issue was itself an outcome of the work environment, not an inherent property of women.

More generally though, our respondents pointed to challenges of gendered organisations (and society more generally), poor access to and/or poorly-run career development practices, and gaps between organisations’ policies and practices regarding equality.

We make 17 recommendations in our Year 2 report (follow this link for a summary). No fewer than 13 of these are aimed at institutions rather than individuals. They include: developing definitions and norms of leadership that allow for a range of styles and skills, closer attention to who gets what opportunities to develop into leadership and other desired roles, and an audit of the distribution of men and women engaging in high and low-prestige managerial and leadership roles within their jobs. And yes, training and perhaps short secondments or work shadowing to see how the organisation really runs (including the finance) with encouragement to academic women to participate would be another good step forward.

The Onwards and Upwards project will run until March 2020.

John Arnold is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University, UK. He is a Fellow and Chartered Occupational Psychologist of the British Psychological Society. John’s research, teaching and consultancy involve all areas of careers and their management from both individual and organisational perspectives.  

Charting a route to the higher ground

Illustration of a diverse group of workers

In the third of a series of blogs ahead of our second equality, diversity and inclusion retreat, Vijaya Nath, associate at Advance HE, shares her thoughts on strategies that will challenge senior leaders and governors to rethink approaches to diversifying their workforce.

In 2016 I contributed an essay to a King’s Fund series called ‘The NHS If‘. In it I wrote: “The late American publisher and entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes succinctly captured one of the most powerful benefits of a diverse workforce and leadership when he described diversity as ‘the art of thinking independently together’. Imagine the potential of a greater range of ideas generated by a greater range of diversity.”

In the last eighteen months that I have been working in higher education I have witnessed great achievement, but I know the sector would be even greater if it could truly harness the thinking and leadership potential of all of its constituents. The paucity of diverse leadership in the decision-making bodies leading HEIs demonstrates the scale of the issue.

The foundations of Western philosophy and thought are often attributed to the teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These great thinkers saw education as a means to achieving justice at an individual and societal level. How would they view the issues facing BAME academic and professional service staff in the UK’s higher education sector in 2018?

Most of those leading universities accept the well-rehearsed moral arguments that have been amplified in the last couple of years. Additionally, the compelling business reasons and better outcomes that harnessing diversity of thought would deliver requires those in leadership roles to give this issue a higher priority than hitherto assigned. But when will we move from rhetoric to action?

As I think of our upcoming retreat for senior leaders and governors in universities the end in mind is to enable considered action as opposed to ruminating over the real and perceived challenges of tackling bias and discrimination. The need for action is particularly acute in higher education, as these are institutions whose primary mission is to promote learning. A setting, that is, which educates world leaders and claims to hold the ‘higher ground’ should be a better role model.

The student population (without whom many of our universities would cease to exist) is the most diverse it has ever been in higher education in the UK, but this is not reflected in university leadership. My colleagues Simon Fanshawe and Roger Kline have outlined several barriers to BAME leaders progressing in universities and I would like to add another.

The most pressing factor, in my opinion (which I have witnessed first-hand as I moved from health to higher education in 2015) is culture, that is to say what we permit as leaders in the sector. When university leadership, their regulators and arms-length bodies representing different facets of higher education bear little resemblance to those they serve, it is indeed time to move to action.

Otherwise, the reputational risk and lack of trust in our university leadership will do little to make us the educators of choice as we move beyond Brexit and hope to become truly the most globally competitive higher education sector.

At the April 2018 Equality Diversity and Inclusion Immersion Retreat we will engage with the question of what works, by looking at a number of sectors which have been asked the same questions when it comes to delivering parity of esteem for BAME staff. Those attending the retreat will have the space to explore how strategies can be turned into actions and, most importantly, how these can be evolved locally, taking into account where an institution is on its journey to realising the potential of all of its constituents – academic and non-academic – in 2018.

We will be able to share with those attending the retreat early findings from a project being led by Professor Jan Fook, aimed at understanding the contributions that BAME academics and professional services staff make, and share in their own words what factors these staff feel have helped them achieve their potential. In addition we will be able to share a number of techniques for building a coalition of the willing, helping senior leaders to work with leaders at all levels in their institution to co-create a culture in which all have the ability to achieve their potential.

This will also involve supporting those leading the sector, who have made commitments to raise this issue as a priority in 2018 and to tackle the deep cultural challenges their institutions face to achieving progress. This time in 2019 we will be able to look back on a year where we pressed for action and tapped into all of the talent available; a year in which we made progress towards achieving inclusive cultures which more accurately represent the student populations that HEIs serve.

Those leading universities talk about achieving a vision where staff and students flourish and achieve their potential irrespective of their ethnicity. We believe this retreat will provide a challenging and supportive space to enable participants to make the changes worthy of a sector that not only nominally but truly inhabits the Higher Ground.

Vijaya Nath will be leading this Spring’s Equality, Diversity and Immersion Retreat on April 23-24 along with Simon Fanshawe former chair of the University of Sussex, and Roger Kline, research fellow at Middlesex University. 

Find out more about the event. Read the previous two blogs in this series: Simon Fanshawe asks, Diversity: are universities sincerely up for change? Roger Kline: If it’s not working…

Cracking the Concrete Ceiling: what we have learned so far

Roof of the Pantheon in Rome with sunlight streaming through

There has been increasing attention paid to the “glass ceiling” effect for women’s advancement in the workplace in recent times, especially to the gender pay gap. Yet just as significantly, the stark truth is that severe racial inequality in British universities persists, leading to talk of a “concrete ceiling” for black and minority ethnic people (BME) in higher education.

The Leadership Foundation has been trying to tackle this problem head-on. For some years the LF has run a leadership programme (“Diversifying Leadership”) designed to support and help people of BME backgrounds to obtain more senior leadership positions.

The LF recently commissioned a study to explore the impact of this programme. This is being co-led by Professor Jan Fook and Dr Terri Kim (University of East London), supported by Amanda Aldercotte and Kevin Guyan (Equality Challenge Unit) and Professor Udy Archibong (Bradford University). The study aims to provide a better understanding of how BME people experience working and gaining leadership in British higher education, and also how their own social and institutional contexts play a part. Several key messages are emerging from this about the experiences of BME staff.

“Hidden” cultures

First, participation in the Diversifying Leadership (DL) programme was experienced overwhelmingly as positive, particularly from the point of view of establishing networks for further support, and creating an environment where participants felt they could identify with the experiences of others. This is to be expected, but speaks volumes for the importance of networking and providing forums where BME people feel they have a more collective voice. However there are also some clear issues which need further attention, especially cultural differences within the BME group itself in their understanding of racial equality issues. Another is how “hidden” cultures of discrimination continue to play a part in hindering BME leadership.

Of course, the value of networking and providing a forum for a more collective BME voice, is not a surprise, and so much of what continues to emerge about the experiences of BME staff in universities echoes much of what has already been said. There are of course micro aggressions and what some people term “institutional racism”. However it is also important to remember that the whole category of “BME” might be seen as a largely constructed category, perhaps constructed by white populations. This can homogenise and in some cases dismiss the vast cultural and political differences which might exist within the broad racial and ethnic minority population.

Our study so far suggests that understanding such differences might make for better preparation in tackling the racial inequality that exists in higher education leadership. Some of these differences revolve around different ways of identifying discriminatory behaviour, as a result of different cultural backgrounds. For example, British-born BME people may have a different identity with regard to racism, than do people who have been born in countries where they were not from an ethnic or racial minority. Those who have not been raised to see themselves as being from a minority group, and have not experienced racism before coming to the UK, may not easily identify with the experience of the British-born counterparts.

How useful is BME labelling?

A further example of differences occurs in relation to how analyses of the politics involved in race relations within universities is perceived. Staff with academic backgrounds in disciplines like sociology, or other social sciences, seemed to be more critically aware of BME policy and racial equality issues in the UK HE sector, often better than those from, for example, natural science disciplinary backgrounds. Among the DL participants, some of the Chinese and East Asian academics admitted that they had not previously been aware of the BME policy-driven equality and diversity agenda. This new awareness was something that they then struggled to integrate into how they managed their own relations at work.

One of the Chinese participants also expressed anxiety over the BME labelling, which he felt might actually be disadvantageous for his career and might be inclined to make colleagues view him as a a member of a “victimised and discriminated against” minority, which he very stridently believed was not how he saw himself in UK HE. These types of experiences indicate that it may be important to include a wide range of perspectives on both how to interpret possibly discriminating behaviour, and also how this is addressed.

Another clear theme, which although not new, is something which most definitely needs to be addressed. Speaking from an “outsider” perspective, BME staff noted that routes to progression were not often clear, or that key posts were filled in a “back door” kind of way, showing a preference for people from white backgrounds.The role of the “hidden culture” involved in being a successful employee in higher education is emerging unequivocally as a major hindrance for those who are locked out of this culture. This points to the need for institutions to be responsible for ensuring pathways to leadership are transparent and accessible to those categorised as being from different cultural backgrounds. Therefore it also important that the tacit knowledge needed to access them, and be successful, is articulated and shared, and also monitored for relevance and inclusion.

Our study therefore underlines the need to address some of the more nuanced cultural and systemic ways of supporting BME leadership in higher education, BUT this also needs to be done through working together with institutional policies, to help crack the concrete ceiling.

Jan Fook, Terri Kim, Amanda Aldercotte, Kevin Guyan and Udy Archibong

Jan Fook is running a workshop at this year’s BME Leadership Summit on May 16. Find out more about the event.

The Leadership Foundation is currently funding a project to explore ways of making university boards more diverse.

Portal to a more diverse future?

Photo montage of diverse faces

Higher education is waking up to the reality that diversifying governing boards will be imperative to the future success of universities. Ahead of the launch of the Board Vacancies portal, Jenny Tester, Project Associate for the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation discusses the diversity case for increasing the transparency of university board vacancies.

The Parker Review and the Davies Report have shone light on the lack of BME and female representation on boards in FTSE 100 companies. These reports, and the narrative surrounding them, challenge businesses, executive search firms and industries to take action to improve board diversity without the use of enforced quotas.

At a time when the cultural climate is one of action against discrimination, with high profile topics such as the gender pay gap and the #MeToo movement dominating the headlines, the opportunity for advancing diversity is unparalleled. In higher education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has set a target of 40% female representation on boards by 2020. Last month Scottish legislation was passed requiring public boards, which includes universities, to comprise 50% women by 2020.

According to the report Women Count (Jarboe, 2016) women make up 36% of boards and 19% of Chairs (up from 32% and 12% respectively). In order to meet Hefce’s target on gender alone, the pace of female appointments to board positions needs to increase significantly over the next year. Although much of the current focus on diversifying boards has centred on increasing BME and female representation, the case for diversity should be viewed through a much broader lens.

Diverse perspectives, expertise and experiences strengthens the effectiveness of governing boards, combating unconscious bias and groupthink, enabling governors to interrogate the HEI with the benefit of a breadth of knowledge and experience, and inspiring a future generation from diverse backgrounds to get involved. Ahead of the Leadership Foundation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Retreat, Simon Fanshawe explored how diversity can be advanced through cultural considerations in this recent blog post.

Universities are being urged to reform widening participation – increasing student representation from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and geographical regions. As the focus shifts to put the student at the centre of higher education, with tax-payer and student return-on-investment central to the debate, pressure will grow for governing bodies to mirror the diversity of the student body and communities they serve.

The challenge

Despite goodwill in higher education, and a recognition of the need for change, the reality of recruitment practices for board appointments often results in the appointment of ‘the usual suspects’, typically from a narrow demographic. A recent survey conducted by AHUA and the Leadership Foundation found over 50% of board vacancies are not publicly advertised, relying on the networks of the Chair and board members to identify suitable candidates. Although this can be an effective way of securing strong candidates who would have otherwise not considered a university board appointment, it does narrow the pool of candidates to those in the board’s immediate network and risks marginalising those beyond.

Potential candidates who have not built networks in higher education therefore lack the necessary visibility and are less likely to be made aware of opportunities. Couple this with the tendency to hire in the image of self, when only 19% of Chairs are female, and the result is a hiring norm which perpetuates rather than tackles inequality. Where vacancies are advertised, their placements range from newspapers which target a certain readership to higher education recruitment pages which lack the visibility to candidates outside the higher education sector. Higher education now needs to make tangible changes to achieve board diversity. As board recruitment processes can last months, in order to meet Hefce’s target we need to take action now or female representation will fall short by 2020.

Possible solutions

In order to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, there needs to be an increase in the transparency and accessibility of vacancies. For those considering a board level appointment in higher education, a central hub to locate vacancies will serve to increase the transparency of board appointment processes and send a message of inclusivity and accessibility to candidates from diverse backgrounds.

As part of a broader project aimed at diversifying boards in higher education, the Leadership Foundation, in collaboration with the Committee of University Chairs, is piloting a board vacancies portal aimed at providing a central repository of board vacancies across the sector. Not only will the portal provide a central space for those considering board appointments in higher education to locate vacancies, it will also draw new talent to the sector through a series of partnerships with networks and organisations seeking to support diversity. The portal is currently being trialled with a select number of opportunities, with a view to launching sector-wide in September 2018.

The portal is only one strand of the Board Diversification Project, funded by Hefce, Hefcw and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland, which includes practical, related initiatives to support greater diversity within higher education boards and those applying for board roles, whether in higher education or outside the sector.

Other strands include:

– Developing a Board Appointment Diversity Framework in partnership with the leading search firms in the sector. This follows from recommendations from the Leadership Foundation report ‘Increasing the diversity of senior leaders in higher education: the role of executive search firms’ authored by Professor Simonetta Manfredi in March 2017.

– Piloting two board readiness workshops following feedback from our Women Onto Boards alumni development survey showing 75% of respondents would be interested in further support in order to develop the right profile and skills.

– Conducting a scoping study to assess the feasibility, effectiveness and practicalities of developing a Board Apprenticeship Scheme in the higher education sector providing aspiring board members with a risk-free environment to gain the necessary knowledge and experience to pursue a board appointment.

The sector has significant opportunity, during times of upheaval and uncertainty, to make tangible changes to the diversity of its governing boards, and in so doing strengthening the quality of its governance for the future.

Jenny Tester is a project associate managing the Board Diversification Project at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. The project aims to increase gender and BME diversity on university boards through practical, related initiatives. Jenny was previously a senior consultant at an executive search firm, leading senior appointments in higher education.

Why mentors and networks are so important

Maxine de Brunner was previously deputy assistant commissioner, Metropolitan Police. She will join us on the 13 March 2018 as a guest speaker at the Aurora Adaptive Leadership Skills day in Edinburgh. Ahead of her talk, Maxine reflects on the importance of mentorships and support networks for women to progress to top leadership positions.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself
I spent thirty years in policing and retired as a deputy assistant commissioner in 2016. I have led many large teams as the director of intelligence and the London ‘prepare’ lead for counter-terrorism.

I spent the last two years as the transformation director. I am most proud of helping others develop as leaders, transforming an organisation and trooping the colour on horseback with the Queen. I have spent that last two years running my own business and working with two education charities.

What does good leadership mean to you?
Good leadership means being prepared to admit when you’re wrong, recognising that it is others who deliver for you and the investment you make in people will pay you back many times over. Great leadership is all about the teams you build and the guidance you give them. Supporting them when things go wrong and taking the responsibility for the difficulties while allowing your team the limelight when things go well. As a leader, it is not about you but your people.

For you as a woman, what has been your greatest insight in terms of your journey to leadership?
Understanding that great teams need balance, not just in terms of gender but all aspects of diversity. I have found that you have to be determined, focused, prepared to work very hard as well as be willing and able to negotiate and influence.

At the start of your career, what were the biggest barriers to progression you were faced with and what advice would you give to someone aspiring to a leadership role facing similar barriers?
The biggest barrier at the start of my journey was that there were no women at the top of my organisation and very few in the lower ranks. Women did not have equal pay, pension rights and did not receive the same officer safety training as male colleagues. They were viewed as necessary to look after children and deal with sexual assault cases. I think the most powerful thing women can do when facing barriers is to join together so that they can influence as a single body.

What would be some of the milestones that you think “that’s a point where my leadership changed”?
The main milestone for me was understanding that you could have children and still have a great career. I was given a project when I came back from maternity leave, but I thought (as is the law) that I should have my old job back. I found that I had to insist on this requirement and in the end, they gave in and allowed me to return to my job. I wanted to come back four days a week but did not have the courage to ask for this. My mentor brokered the subject on my behalf and helped me negotiate my first year back.

What would you say if someone were to ask you, what makes you most resilient?
Being reflective and prepared to debrief your own actions, decisions and consequences. I think when times are hard it helps to focus on positive outcomes and not internalise situations. They are not usually personal but about the business, but it is easy to forget that. It also helps to have self-belief and confidence that what you are doing is right. That confidence will come from outcomes, achievements and your network.

What is the biggest insight you’ve had from working with women in higher education on their leadership journey, the opportunities and the challenges?
I have found through my work in education that there are many women in teaching but many senior positions are still often filled by men. Women work incredibly hard in their roles, but senior women colleagues have also focused on themselves and taken time to invest in themselves, have a clear plan to achieve their goals. Leadership is not just about doing the tasks really well, it is also about having the confidence to look up into the future.

How important do you think mentors, role models and networks are in supporting women’s leadership?
The role of mentors and networks must never be underestimated. Being part of a strong group of women gives you the power to negotiate your futures. It is vital that women don’t give this away.

Just look at the recent BBC pay gap situation, a group of women joined together to talk as one body. That helps take the heat away from individuals, and where there are individual positions taken, they are fully supported by the group. It’s very powerful and I have no doubt they will achieve a fair outcome.

How can initiatives like Aurora help women and their organisation achieve their potential?
Aurora can help women understand the values of mentoring and group influence while giving practical tools and help on the journey. It can inspire many to believe in themselves.

Thinking about your career and experiences, what advice would you give your younger self?
I think if I was starting again I would have got involved in a network much earlier as being alone was much harder and many heads are much better than one when problems arise.

Finally, do you have an inspiring woman leader, and if so, who?
The most inspiring woman leader I have met is a lady called Barbara Wilding, she retired as the chief constable of South Wales Police. Barbara mentored me, employed me in a senior role when I thought it was impossible, encouraged me and sponsored me for senior courses and strategic command. She was a great leader herself and cared deeply about others. She was very careful not to pull the ladder up behind her but develop the leaders of tomorrow. I owe her a great deal. It was her influence that enabled me to be supported as a chief officer and whenever things went well or even not so well, she wrote to me with her thoughts. I still have her letters today.


About Aurora
Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Since Aurora began in 2013 we have welcomed 4,635 women from 139 universities and sector bodies, with 1,158 women attending in 2017-18 alone.

Dates, location and booking
We will shortly be releasing the Aurora dates for 2018-19. To register your interest please get in touch aurora@lfhe.ac.uk.

Onwards and Upwards longitudinal study
In March 2018, the Leadership Foundation released the year 2 Aurora Longitudinal Study as a Leadership Insight.

 

Learning from other cultures to tackle inequality

Woman holding her fingers in a cross position over her mouthIn the lead up to International Women’s Day, Nicola Sayers reflects on the importance of cross-cultural perspectives for universities looking to better understand their own systemic inequalities and to make real changes. 

The idea of a ‘Women’s Day’ goes back to 1909, when the Socialist Party of America held a ‘National Women’s Day’ in New York. The international element soon followed, with Russia observing an ‘International Women’s Day’ in 1913; and by the 1970s International Women’s Day, 8th March, was an official fixture in the United Nations calendar. A longstanding history, then, but what, really, is the point of a ‘Women’s Day’?
One might with good reason to argue that, until genuine equality is achieved, every day should be a so-called ‘Women’s Day’, yet another day in which we should press for progress, and must remember the ongoing cultural, social and structural inequalities that women face. But if there is a point to singling out one day, it is surely as a chance to take stock, a chance both to celebrate progress that has been made (which, since 1909, is clearly substantive) and to call attention to the huge amount of work that still needs to be done.

Progress is not linear, of course. Some years chip away at the same old battles, others witness regression, and others yet prove that sizeable shifts can occur quite suddenly – like the coin pusher game in arcades, the pennies build up over time and then all drop quite suddenly. This last year, arguably, was one such year.

The many women’s marches, the viral spread of the #timesup and #metoo hashtags, not to mention race awareness movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #rhodesmustfall: this feels like a moment in which long-standing issues are being stirred up and, for the first time in some time, there is mass interest. None of these movements is without complexity, and around each, rightfully, important debates are being had. Does the visibility of Hollywood in #timesup helpfully raise awareness, or encourage progress only among the relatively privileged, detracting attention from the professions and classes in which harassment and barriers to opportunity are worst? Does #metoo shine a legitimate spotlight on predatory behaviours which might until now have been considered borderline acceptable, or does it risk judging in a media circus what is better judged in a court of law? And does #rhodesmustfall bring crucial awareness to the historical (and continuing) oppression that many of our institutions of higher education are founded on, or does it force surface action on matters that appease riled-up student bodies while glossing over the deeper, systemic discussions that need to take place?

But in all of this what is certain is that there is at present momentum around issues of gender and race that universities would do well to attend to. In this effort, in-depth research is an important correlate of media and social media interest in these issues, so that the push for progress is always backed up by real knowledge. The Leadership Foundation strives always to be conducting timely research on race and gender that will prove useful to leaders looking to make real change in higher education contexts.
One example of such research is a recent Leadership Insight report, Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership?

First and foremost, the report provides important information for anyone looking to make changes in the Hong Kong university system. It is fascinating, for instance, that there is an outright mismatch between what male leaders perceive as the barriers facing women (family issues and work-life balance) and what women academics themselves perceive as the primary barriers facing them (gender bias and lack of opportunity). It is relevant too, and worthy of further investigation, that while cultural factors – such as the widespread belief in East Asian culture that women should not be more successful than their husbands and should not stand out or be aggressive – did surface as significant, there was some disagreement as to just how significant these cultural factors really were.

But reports like this one are also of interest for UK universities as inter-cultural and global perspectives on women in higher education provide important food for comparative thought; in what ways and to what extent do women academics and higher education professionals face the same problems globally? What are the areas in which other contexts might serve as warnings to us? (For example, do leaders in the UK also over-emphasise the role of family and under-emphasise the role of gender bias in making sense of existing inequalities?). And are there yet other ways in which we might learn from other cultures?

Tackling gender inequality always requires a multi-pronged approach – capitalising on mass media interest, producing and acting on high-level research, and making active interventions both at local and systemic levels. One such intervention is the Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme, a leadership programme, now in its fifth year, designed specifically for women. As well as being hugely helpful for participants, programmes like this help in turn to deepen understanding of the current realities as well as to bring to light areas for further research.

For example, results from the second year of the Aurora Longitudinal Study showed that many female academics and professionals feel that men taking on more domestic responsibility would gradually shift attitudes towards balancing work and family. An interesting avenue for further cross-cultural comparative research might therefore be to look to Sweden, where men and women generally share parental leave (parents only get all 480 days of available leave if one parent takes at least 60 of those days, thus encouraging fathers as well as mothers to take at least several months leave). How does this impact on gender imbalances in the workplace generally and in higher education contexts specifically?

More radically, one might even look at Sweden’s first ‘gender-neutral’ pre-school – where all mention of differences between the sexes (even in children’s books) are avoided, and where children are referred to using ‘hen’, a gender-neutral pronoun (‘hon’ is the Swedish for ‘she’, and ‘han’ is the Swedish for ‘he’) – as a way to reflect on how deeply gendered expectations are ingrained and what a world without such expectations might look like.

It sounds extreme, perhaps, but if 2017/18 has ushered in a new wave of interest in gender, race and inequality, universities are faced with a real opportunity to ride this wave, complementing it with research and practice that goes above and beyond tokenism and seeks to usher in deep and systemic change.

Dr Nicola Sayers is a former research manager at the Leadership Foundation. She is half-Swedish, half-British and has studied both in the UK and the US. Her recently completed doctorate explored the role of nostalgia in contemporary American literature and culture, but she also retains a strong interest in higher education research. She currently resides in Chicago.

Follow @LF4HE on Twitter and on International Women’s Day, March 8, join in with our #HeroinesinHE campaign to celebrate inspirational women in higher education.

LF Members can read the report: Silent Witness: Why are women missing from Hong Kong academic leadership?