How to manage conflict: preparing for the meeting

Sharon Paterson, Mike Rogers and Paul Hessey from Leading Roles run an experiential session on having difficult conversations on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. In our first of two blogs on this subject, they share their practical tips on the preparation needed to ensure that difficult conversations are managed well and generate the best outcome for those involved.

Before the meeting ask yourself these questions:

  • Why have this conversation?
  • Who will it serve immediately and what will it bring you?
  • What might be the ultimate benefit (to both of you) of having this conversation?
  • Is the matter trivial or serious enough for both parties to invest time in?
  • What might be the ultimate consequence of not having this conversation?
  • If you’re not going to do it, what are you going to do instead?
  • What might be your “BATNA” (Best Alternative to No Agreement)?

When you consider the longer-term implications, decide whether a good outcome now would damage a relationship with this individual (or wider group) in the longer term. If you have not decided to avoid this potential conflict for legitimate reasons, explain to yourself why a ‘victory’ on this issue is essential for you, or how you might be prepared to compromise in the short term to get more from the relationship over time, or indeed whether there is a way to collaborate with this individual for an even better solution than the one you currently plan to offer.

How can you prepare yourself?
Think about how you can carry your desired mindset into the conversation and even how your physiology can affect your psychology. Try psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Power Posing techniques.

Consider Patsy Rodenburg’s status circle and focus on the following attributes:

  • Curious
  • Open-minded
  • Alert
  • Respectful
  • Listening actively and empathetically
  • Being mindful of body language and tone of voice

If you want to be assertive, courageous, compassionate, remind yourself of when you have done these things well – even if it was in unrelated circumstances – and summon the feelings associated with those times. Develop techniques that will help you to keep calm and manage your emotions. Slow silent counting and breathing deeply can sometimes help.

Being assertive
If you are planning to be assertive, the 5-part assertion tool can help you rehearse being assertive about what you really want or need to happen. This isn’t a script, but you can benefit by thinking about the following in your own terms:

  • What I like…
  • What I don’t like…
  • If you do…
  • If you don’t…
  • What I want / need is…

Are you ‘travelling light’?
You may be carrying ‘baggage’ into the conversation. Is it possible to leave it at the door – the past does not always need to feature in the present.

How can you bring both honesty and integrity to the conversation?
Be very clear about what you can and can’t promise, and about what power and responsibility you have to meet requests. With what status are you entering the conversation? Parent, adult or child? (Find out more about this idea by following this link). Question your assumptions and your knowledge of the context of events, consider why would a reasonable person be acting in this way.

Think about the situation from the other person’s perspective
If you were in their position, how could they be feeling and what might they be thinking about the issue?  (Literally asking these questions early in the conversation should give you a better understanding of both.)  What alternative approach might you offer as a suggestion, if you were ‘wearing their shoes’?

Think about the degree to which they seem to be holding onto their convictions, using what you have observed, rather than assume to be the case. If they have declared outright that the issue is one on which they will never compromise, you may need to re-assess your ability to influence them.

Location, location, location
Taking some control of the meeting environment might help. Your place or theirs or neutral ground? Where might be most advantageous to the situation?

Once you’re satisfied that you are prepared, the next step is to face your colleague. Read the second blog: how to manage conflict: steering the meeting

If you would like to know more about handling difficult conversations, join us on our Introduction to Head of Department programme. Find out more: www.lfhe.ac.uk/ihod

We have further resources on having difficult conversations on our Knowledge Bank. Take a look here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/knowledgebank

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.

How to live and breathe values-based leadership

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Authenticity is a cornerstone of leadership and demonstrating that is a key strand of values-based practice. Leadership Foundation associate Mark Trezona digs a little deeper into what this means in reality.

My lesson in leadership is really to live the values, to breathe the values, to talk about the values. And we might not all experience or share those values in the same way but I think it’s really important that we remember we are here to make a difference. And that difference is all about values.” Cara Aitchison Leadership Lecture 2016.

Values Based Leadership has become ubiquitous in leadership literature and rhetoric over the past few years, partly in response to increasing doubts about the integrity and efficacy of many of the charismatic, dynamic and seemingly transformational leaders that have been prominent.

With leadership experts and practitioners, employees and even entire nations questioning the qualities needed for exemplary leaders, society is demanding leaders who demonstrate a strong sense of values, morals and ethics, says Mary Kay Copeland in her 2014 paper: The Emerging Significance of Values Based Leadership: A Literature Review.

But what is values-driven leadership, and how can we live and breathe our values, as Cara Aitchison calls for?

Copeland identifies Values Based Leadership as the convergence of authentic, ethical and transformational leadership.

Values-based leaders draw on their own and their colleagues’ values for direction and motivation. It is natural for leaders to refer to their own values in creating a vision or making decisions. If they then connect with their colleagues’ values when seeking enactment of their strategies, people are more attuned with each other and what they collectively stand for and care about, as well as what their organisation stands for and the difference it aspires to make.

As a philosophy, Values Based Leadership assumes that an organisation based on shared values is likely to be more flexible and productive, and that values-based leaders will make better choices, build higher quality relationships with colleagues and feel more in tune with their ‘authentic integral self’.

Values in action: bringing a values-based approach to our leadership

If the people we work with are to believe in the sincerity and depth of our organisation’s values, we, as leaders, must lead by example and enact and embody those values – our own as much as our organisation’s.

But how might we do this? The Values In Action character strengths can help.

In 2004, Peterson and Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, which describes the results of a three-year research effort that integrated the insights of over 50 top social scientists into universal personality traits.

As part of this research, Peterson led a substantial historic analysis reviewing the best thinking on virtue, strength and goodness. This mammoth task involved a literature review of previous attempts to classify virtue and an empirical approach driven by two questions:

  • Would the virtue catalogues of early thinkers converge?
  • Would certain virtues, regardless of tradition or culture, be widely valued?

Six similar themes – virtues – emerged across the traditions of Athenian philosophy, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These were:

Cognitive strengths such as creativity curiosity, judgement, love of learning and perspective in the acquisition and use of knowledge.

Emotional strengths such as bravery, perseverance, honesty and zest involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition.

Interpersonal strengths such as capacity to love and be loved, kindness and social intelligence.

Civic strengths such as teamwork, fairness and leadership underly healthy community life.

Strengths protecting against excess are forgiveness, modesty, prudence, and self-regulation.

Strengths of transcendence are appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour and spirituality.

Twenty-four character strengths were then derived based on how well they met 10 specific strengths criteria, including whether the qualities were morally valued, manifest across situations, and whether there are examples of the strength across the widest spectrum of cultural and organisational contexts.

However, when Values In Action’s Chris Peterson was asked to share his most important finding from all the advancements in character strengths science, he responded simply: character is plural” (Peterson, personal communication, 2010).

What Petersen meant is that people are not simply kind or humble, brave or hopeful. Rather, people have many character strengths, and these strengths are expressed in combinations, each person having a unique profile of character strengths. This informs the rich tapestry of a person’s character. Each person’s expression of character strengths is unique – no two people with creativity as a top strength will express this value in an identical way. In this way, character is individualised and idiosyncratic.

A values framework for higher education

That said, the twenty-four character strengths give us a universal language to describe what is best in human beings. This is a ground-breaking discovery as, historically, there has never been a language of character that crosses cultures. This gives us a potent, meaningful and recognisable framework to think, talk about and act on our different values. It gives us a coherent way of viewing ourselves, and a guide for understanding and sharing who we are at heart.

With this shared lexicon, we can build and grow our collective understanding, interventions and strategies, and make conversations in which leaders, with the people we work with, can bring together a fusion of our individual authentic strengths and values.

In this way we can configure our collective values for different situations, relationships and organisational aspirations in ways that remain deep-seated in our truest and strongest selves – Values Based Leadership in action.

Mark Trezona is an associate and coach with the Leadership Foundation. He has more than twenty years’ experience as a learning and development specialist, with expertise in 21st century leadership, strategy and team development, learning, creativity, communications, and in strengths-based approaches for increasing resilience, engagement and happiness at work. 

Values Based Leadership was the topic of this year’s Annual Wales Conference. Gary Reed, assistant director membership, Wales, discusses what drives it in this blog post.

For more information about our bespoke programmes and how we can tailor them to your institution’s needs, contact Dot Daymond, interim assistant director operations (Consultancy and Bespoke programmes).

Learning by experience to build flexible, resilient leaders

Programme Directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary ReadAhead of the Strategic Leadership Programme later this academic year, programme directors Lisa Sofianos and Gary Reed reflect on why experiential learning is a key part of the programme.

Poor Einstein has been mercilessly mined for inspirational quotes for many years, but here’s one we can’t resist: “The only source of knowledge is experience”. We are unlike Einstein in many ways, but on this we share his commitment to the value of experiential learning in transforming abstract theory into practical knowledge. This is one of the tenets that informs and shapes the design of the Strategic Leadership Programme (SLP).

Another is that, on SLP, we know that we are working with people who are already effective in their roles running complex academic institutions. With this firmly in our minds, we see our job as facilitators is to offer provocations and reframing to help participants move their thinking somewhere new. For us, this is the real work of leadership development, with responsibilities on both sides to learn.

So far so good, but how does this translate into programme activity? 
SLP alumni tell us one of the elements they really value is the simulation exercise where participants take a role in the leadership team of a fictitious – but oddly familiar – university. Their task is to work together to complete some stretching challenges set by the “vice chancellor”. They present their solutions back to the “Executive Board” and are given specific and constructive feedback on their process.

The simulation allows participants to experiment with organisational dynamics in an environment that is safe and removed from the immediacy of their own organisational context. They can take risks, try out the new ideas they have encountered earlier in the programme, and not worry about the consequences, beyond what they can learn from them. This is not a role-play, rather participants are encouraged to step outside their tried and tested approaches and begin to find their own authentic expression of leadership.

Past participants say the real value of this exercise is in helping them to gain insights into:

  • How they operate in a group of leaders and their ideas about roles and responsibilities
  • How they lead and are affected by group dynamics
  • Their assumptions about organisations and their own institutions
  • How they react to pressure
  • How they prioritise and maintain focus
  • Their levels of creativity

The environment is fast-paced and complex, but it is safe and supportive, and most importantly, fun!

And that highlights another of our tenets. Serious learning in a fun, relaxed, and safe environment is an indispensable SLP ingredient.

We look forward to you joining us on the programme.


The Strategic Leadership Programme is for aspiring senior leaders and aims to build leaders who are flexible and resilient.

Find out more and apply:
Strategic Leadership Programme
Application Deadline: Friday 4 May 2018
Module 1: Wednesday 16 – Thursday 17 May 2018
Module 2: Tuesday 26 – Thursday 28 June
Location: Birmingham

Lisa Sofianos has recently co-authored a Leadership Foundation stimulus paper, Exploring the Impact of Coaching in Higher Education, which is available online for members of the Leadership Foundation. 

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?