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Aurora Inspiring Leaders

In January 2016 we ran a competition for Aurora alumnae, role models and champions to nominate their inspiring woman leader from within higher education. What resulted was a powerful list of talented and diverse inspiring women who span a wide range of institutions, roles and areas of expertise.

Winning entries

Cecilia Fenech Brincat, research delivery executive, Cranfield University, nominated Professor Elise Cartmell, director of environmental technology, Cranfield University

Cristina Stefan, lecturer, University of Leeds, nominated Amy Cuddy, associate professor, Harvard Business School

Dawne Gurbutt, colleges lead, University of Central Lancashire, nominated Jools E Symons, patient and public involvement manager, Leeds Institute of Medical Education

Jo Buckberry, senior lecturer, University of Bradford, nominated Professor Uduak Archibong MBE, professor of diversity, University of Bradford

Julie Dickey, school secretary, Ulster University, nominated Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, head of school of Health Sciences, Ulster University

Laura Christie, educational development officer, Royal Holloway University of London, nominated Pam her mentor

Laura Dickinson, teaching fellow, Bristol University, nominated Dr Lucy Berthoud, senior teaching fellow, University of Bristol

Martina Doolan, principal lecturer, University of Hertfordshire, nominated Dr Sue Black, honorary professor, University College London

Tabarak Ballal, associate professor, University of Reading, nominated Professor Intisar Soghayroun Elzein, associate professor, University of Khartoum

Tzany Kokalova, lecturer, University of Birmingham, nominated Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, visiting professor, University of Oxford


Almuth McDowall, programme director, Birckbeck, nominated Professor Ellen Kossek, professor, Michigan State University's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations

Bernadette Moore, associate professor, University of Leeds, nominated Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England

Chamu Kuppuswamy, senior lecturer, University of Hertfordshire, nominated her younger sister, neuroscientist

Christine Drabwell, deputy head of media relations (acting), Open University, nominated Professor Monica Grady CBE, professor, the Open University

Claire Toogood, personal development planning advisor, Harper Adams University, nominated Alison Allden OBE, retired chief executive, Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)

Emma Butterwick, executive assistant, Cranfield University, nominated Wendy Shepherd, executive development director, Cranfield University

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs, senior lecturer, Liverpool John Moores University, nominated her peers

Izabela Cebula, lecturer, University of Strathclyde, nominated Professor Lesley Yellowlees OBE, professor and vice-principal, University of Edinburgh

Kathleen Leedham-Green, community years 1 and 2, King's College London, nominated Professor Evelyn Welch, professor and vice-principal, King’s College London

Kellie Dean, lecturer, University College Cork, nominated Carol L Folt, chancellor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Louise Dybell, conference and catering manager, De Montfort University, nominated Professor Madeleine Atkins CBE, chief executive of Hefce

Mary Catherine Lucey, lecturer, University College Dublin, nominated Professor Orla Feely, vice-principal, University College Dublin

Nadine Ansorg, post-doctoral researcher, University of Kent, nominated the qualities of those inspiring leaders

Rita Walters, marketing coordinator, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, nominated Susie Norton, marketing and communications manager, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Rossana Espinoza, staff learning and development advisor, University of Westminster, nominated Jean Harrison, director organisation development and well-being, University of Westminster

Sharon Cole, research development officer, King's College London, nominated Tessa Harrison, director, King’s College London

Cecilia Fenech Brincat nominated Professor Elise Cartmell, director of environmental technology at Cranfield University and a member of the Cranfield Water Science Institute and specialist in wastewater treatment.

My inspiring woman leader is Professor Elise Cartmell, the environmental technology director of theme (DoT) at Cranfield University: the only female DoT, of seven. There are many reasons she inspires me, but key are her demeanour, subject knowledge and respect she shows and is shown. No one doubts why she is where she is.

There are various examples I can mention, but I pick two, which have had a particular impact on me. Although very senior, Elise is always "available" (although people respect that she is busy). On becoming DoT, rather than taking on a large office (as other DoT do), she set-up a hot-desking arrangement. Every day, she is based in one of the open-plan spaces of the centres and institutes that make up the Environmental Technology theme. This ensures she is visible and colleagues at all levels have plenty of opportunities to engage with her.

Through my role leading the research support team within Cranfield’s Research and Innovation Office I also have a perspective that not many people at the university have. I can see how much she cares about and mentors all staff (including junior staff). She reviews proposals and takes time to provide constructive criticism (in a timely manner) and I am in awe in the way she puts her point across, while supporting individuals’ development and builds their confidence up. In fact, I have increasingly been "studying" her approach and trying to emulate it in the support I give colleagues.

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Cristina Stefan nominated Amy Cuddy, associate professor, Harvard Business School and social psychologist who uses experimental methods to investigate how people judge and influence each other and themselves. Renowned for her TED talk Your body language shapes who you are.

My name is Cristina. I am a very enthusiastic current Aurora participant from the University of Leeds (where I am a lecturer in international relations), just about to embark on the Aurora training developing leadership skills. I got to this stage after a career break for personal reasons, moving places (from Canada to Leeds in 2014), and struggling at first to understand the British higher education system. This competition (and especially Cuddy’s talk in London!) couldn’t come at a better time. That’s because Amy Cuddy IS my inspiring woman leader within higher education. I’ve listened to her famous TED talk until I learnt it by heart, in order to talk myself into returning to the academic career that I loved. Amy is my inspiration precisely because I have identified with her earlier struggles, which she described with such honesty, and tackled like a genius! Her honesty in communicating both her own story of personal struggles in academe and her scientific findings is the one quality that I find most inspiring. In particular, I found her now fabulously famous advice on “faking it” the best coping mechanism available when in painfully constant self-doubt, in response to the impostor syndrome. Her story of convincing a shy PhD female student in her class to speak up, and become self-assured in high-pressure moments is wonderful and life affirming! It’s through small changes - as Cuddy argues - that we can progress both personally and professionally, and this is precisely what I intend to do to become my best self!

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Dawne Gurbutt nominated Jools E Symons, patient and public involvement manager, communication skills lead year 2 and lived experience network lead at Leeds Institute of Medical Education.

The person who most inspires me in higher education is not a person in executive management, but is a someone who has transformed a service and a team through the application of their communication skills and having a vision that transcended box ticking to energising a community. She came into her role as a carer in a patient carer community in a medical school and was so keen to ensure that students learned from real life examples to improve their education and practice that she used every opportunity and every connection to embed service user engagement. Using inclusive communication and persistence she managed to persuade systems and people to embrace the change. She became a staff member then became a staff leader but has never lost sight of the key components of her role. The obvious choice among her peers to chair a national network on PPI (public and patient involvement) , she continues to share a "can-do attitude" , to inspire optimism, encouraging people to share something of themselves in their role and to value the contributions that others make. She now has a national and international profile in the field, but remains approachable and enthusiastic.

She is knowledgeable, engaging, committed and fun. She has the attentiveness which makes each person feel that they matter and she gives full attention to the people she meets, she is "fully present" in situations which enables others to give the same attentiveness and commitment. Her struggle has sometimes been uphill, but her wake leaves a more level playing field for those who follow behind her.

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Jo Buckberry nominated Professor Uduak Archibong MBE, professor of diversity at the University of Bradford and director of the Centre for Inclusion and Diversity, providing strategic oversight for equality and diversity across the institution. Recognised as a thought leader in inclusion and diversity.

My inspirational leader is Professor Uduak Archibong of the University of Bradford, who I have had the pleasure of meeting on just a handful of occasions, despite working at the same institution. Udy’s ethos is to support others and to celebrate diversity and the positive impact a diverse community can have in all aspect of life. She leads the European Commission-funded project GENOVATE and is our Aurora champion. Her research focuses on diversity management, but her leadership in the field is so much more than just academic research. It feels as though it is the driving force behind her as a person; it’s clearly her passion. It is reflected in her many achievements, including her MBE. The university had to create a new post, "professor of diversity", to acknowledge her triumphs. Udy breaks the conventional mould of a professor. She strives to support others rather than to promote herself, and is a one-woman crusading force for achieving equality at the highest levels in academia, but also in public, private and third sector organisations. She is incisive and determined; warm, friendly and supportive; powerful yet humble; has a wicked sense of humour; an individual sense of style and is entirely authentic to herself. I feel honoured to work at the same institution, and to be able to chat in a queue for coffee, despite only having met her "formally" two or three times. This personable, friendly face is, for me, the mark of a true leader.

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Julie Dickey nominated Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, head of school of Health Sciences, Ulster University, and Athena Swan champion. Research focuses on the dietary and supplemental management of chronic disease.

My inspiring woman leader in higher education would be Dr Mary Hannon-Fletcher, head of School of Health Sciences, Ulster University. Mary is a great champion of self-development and especially the empowerment of women. Mary has worked in various fields in the biomedical world and has overcome many prejudices and challenges as not only a female but also as a wheelchair user from the age of 18 after an accident. Mary has had an amazing life and has travelled and worked all over the world without letting her disability deter her from trying out new experiences. As she always quotes "what’s the worst that can happen?".

As the school secretary, Mary is my line manager and realises the challenges I face in my working role. When I originally began working with Mary she saw potential in me that she nurtured and encouraged, giving me the opportunity to attend training classes in management and leadership and, most recently, Aurora which I have found to be a great experience and confidence building. Mary has encouraged all this with the knowledge that by supporting me and empowering me she is giving me the confidence to move onward and upward in my career and she continues to help me discover qualities in myself that I haven’t explored. At times of self-doubt I have felt able to approach her and her common sense and sense of humour about situations has helped me overcome my doubts.

Mary is a great crusader and role model for women no matter what their background.

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Laura Christie nominated Pam, her mentor

Pam is my mentor and radiates leadership and experience. She is supposed to be retired but cannot pull away from supporting colleagues, advising teams or travelling the world to inspire others. She is full of wisdom and quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) confidence; she is very warm and invites you to speak your mind. In a room people hush to hear what she has to say and she never shouts. She brings people together, encouraging opportunities for developing programmes and people, kindly "forcing" you to swap business cards with others. 

Her experiences as an academic in higher education are common in that she has suffered sexism and now looks upon these anecdotes and stories as funny. She is proud of how she handled put downs, giving as good as she got, and often better. But Pam would never have been mean, only just. Negative comments about her pristine hair being all there is to her were jovially returned with comments about male balding and toupees.

I admire her ability to make decisions and to walk away when an opportunity turns out to not be right. She does get angry when things go wrong, is being held back or her efforts are not appreciated, and communicates this but she doesn’t cling on to it and instead does something about it.

Finally, she pushes me beyond my comfort zone, expecting that everything will work out because she reminds me of what I already have achieved.

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Laura Dickinson nominated Dr Lucy Berthoud, a senior teaching fellow in the aerospace engineering department at the University of Bristol, having worked for 25 years in spacecraft research and industry. Dr Berthoud teaches space systems, advanced space systems and systems engineering design.

“Look at his pudgy little face!” Dr Lucy Berthoud describes a blown-up picture of a waterbear (a tiny animal that can survive being shot into space) to a giggling, captivated audience of 600 students and academics at the Best of Bristol lectures.

Earlier, while we all clapped and cheered, she had shot across the front of the giant lecture hall, sitting on a skateboard and using a fire extinguisher, to demonstrate the principle of conservation of momentum.

Lucy is a space engineer and she loves it. I think I am lucky that her office is two doors down from mine.

While doing all these mad demos and talking about crazy space experiments there is nothing bombastic or inauthentic about her. In fact she talks openly about the fear of speaking to hundreds of people or the terror of going on live radio, but she seeks out ways to cope, train, practise, improve, grow and engage and brings the rest of us academics along on the ride.

Lucy brings her whole self to work, and her willingness to share her struggles and vulnerabilities inspires us to engage and strive.

I’ve experienced her fantastic mentoring of lots of academics; she connects and is deeply interested in people. She seeks us out, asks us questions, listens to us, brings us together and urges us to action; she is rooting for us, she makes us feel empowered. And when we try to lead and to change, she is present, supporting our cause.

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Martina Doolan nominated Dr Sue Black, a computer scientist, radical thinker, social entrepreneur, regular columnist for The Guardian and Daily Mirror, founder of the campaign to save Bletchley Park and honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at University College London.

Dr Sue Black is an inspirational woman with a social conscience and a desire to give back to society that which she has received. Like Sue I am a single mother; access to higher education has been transformational and emancipation from poverty.

As an academic in computing, Dr Black is a digital campaigner who tirelessly instigates equality and the advancement of women in technology. Her efforts encourage, inspire and empower mothers like me from deprived backgrounds; to build confidence, self-belief and consider that anything is possible in the world of technology, higher education and work. In my experience, such efforts provide a lifeline.

Dr Black is an amazing advocate and role model in an industry increasingly dominated by men. According to a recent employment survey, less than 16% are women in the IT industry and this falls below 10% at senior level. In higher education, women like me represent 21.7% of the workforce in IT and systems sciences (ECU, 2013).

Through championing and progressing the advancement of women in technology; Dr Black contributes to accelerating the UK’s digital skill base and facilitating social mobility.

Overall, Dr Black is an inspirational woman who plays a key role in influencing and shaping generations of women as educators, workers, role models and leaders in technology. Dr Black diligently contributes to bridging the gender gap in students studying computer science courses in the UK and to the overall success of recruiting and retaining women in higher education and the advancement of women in the wider UK economy.

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Tabarak Ballal nominated Professor Intisar Soghayroun Elzein, an archaeologist known for her work in Islamic archaeology, associate professor at the University of Khartoum and author of Islamic Archaeology in the Republic of the Sudan.

Professor Intisar Soghayroun Elzein is renowned for her passion, dedication and world-class research and expertise in the field of archaeology. She is my inspirational woman leader because, despite her high-flying career in higher education in her home country Sudan and her international prominence as a formidable, knowledgeable and influential archaeologist, she is an extremely humble person who conducts herself with exceptional grace, dignity and self-confidence. I saw her give a public lecture at the University of Reading entitled: The Archaeology of Sudan: Objectives and Strategies in May 2012. Her authentic style of delivery was creative, capturing the audience’s attention with her humorous and down-to-earth approach. Her composure, self-assurance and gracefulness were also evident in the way that she led a meeting as dean of the faculty of arts at the University of Khartoum which I attended during a visit by a University of Reading delegation. I was impressed by her cordiality, approachability and the way in which her staff readily and easily connected and responded to her. The combination of extreme humility and significant presence in her field of specialisation undoubtedly makes her standout as a great leader in higher education. She is also my inspirational woman leader because despite her rich career, she is a wife and mother of three. Although I do not know how she’s managed to achieve a work/life balance, her calmness and general positive attitude seem to suggest that she is well in control of her career and private life.

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Tzany Kokalova nominated Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist who discovered radio pulsars in the late 1960s and was notoriously excluded from the Nobel Prize awarded to her two colleagues in 1974. Former president of both the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics. Currently visiting professor of astrophysics in the University of Oxford and a fellow of Mansfield College.

Everything about her is inspiring: the dedication she had during her PhD, the great discovery she made, the way she dealt with the fact that she didn't share the Nobel Prize in 1974 and, if this is not already enough, how she dedicated herself to being a role model and helping women interested in doing science. When asked why, the answer she gives speaks for itself: "...for me being a role model was ...important, just to show there are women doing science, enjoying it and being good at it."

When I first met her in person I was returning from a career break; listening to her talk made me get rid of all my doubts about whether I was doing the right thing – moving from questions such as "do I still have a chance to progress in my career?" to the decision "yes, I want to be back doing what I love and I want to go all the way to the top." She is an incredible scientist and even more, she is an incredible woman.

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Almuth McDowall nominated Professor Ellen Kossek. Author of the bestselling CEO of Me: Creating a life that works in the flexible job age, award-winning author and journal editor, and professor at Michigan State University's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.

Ellen Kossek will always be my role model and personal heroine. Nothing can change that. I felt I knew Ellen even before I had met her by reading her work. She publishes in the best journals in our field (I/O psychology) using rigorous methods and with theoretical integrity. Yet her style is such that the paragraphs lift off the page – they seem to speak aloud as you read them. Her research area is work-life balance, and how we manage boundaries in our working lives, a topic close to my own heart, both professionally and personally. I had never quite appreciated, though, why my US colleagues had always talked about "work-family conflict", rather than "what works" until I met Ellen. Rather humbled, I learned how our UK parental benefits are generous; Ellen brought each of her four children into her office and had them in a moses basket under her desk, so that she would not sacrifice her career. Her children now near grown up, Ellen continues to produce excellent research, all of which has tangible implications for the organisations we work in; the CEO of ME is surely one of the best book titles ever. But, alongside all of this, Ellen has compassion, care and kindness for other researchers around her and is carelessly generous with her time and advice, as well her hearty laugh. The world of academia is a richer place for her presence.

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Bernadette Moore nominated Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer for England since 2010 and previously chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health.

I am relatively new to the United Kingdom, moving here for a lectureship at the end of 2007. Although natively Irish, my undergraduate and postgraduate studies were in the United States, and my perspective on equality and diversity is coloured accordingly. In my eight years living in the UK I have witnessed a profound transformation in the dialogue around gender equality and, undoubtedly, the woman who I find the most inspiring leader in the UK, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has been pivotal in engineering this change.

I distinctly remember reading the news piece in Nature in 2011 saying that Professor Davies had made NIHR funding dependent on Athena Swan status. I had never heard of Athena Swan and, upon investigating, was more than dismayed to discover the institution with which I was associated had not previously thought it important. My immediate thought was that this was a game changer and, on learning that Professor Davies was the first female chief medical officer of the UK, I was awestruck by the difference just one woman breaking through a glass ceiling could make.

Since then I have observed the impact of this requirement with an unprecedented increase in number of universities acquiring Athena Swan awards, in addition to the tremendous impact of her reports and guidelines on the direction of public health efforts in the UK. When speaking publicly her passion, candour, intelligence and humour resonate. For all these reasons, Professor Dame Sally Davies is the woman I find the most inspiring leader in the UK.

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Chamu Kuppuswamy nominated her younger sister, a neuroscientist

I have not come across an academic so very sure of her goals, which she communicates very well at all times, under all circumstances. Steadfast in her goals, and determined to do it her way, she spurns opportunities and distractions and her obliviousness to these is remarkable. The consistency with which she carries her goals around creates an aura of confidence about her. Carrot or stick doesn’t move her. Such equanimity in the face of changing funding priorities and the onset of the impact agenda makes one wonder about her secret formula for an ever-fresh and resilient research agenda!

I have heard some of her keynote talks and her interactions with audience, the candour and rigour, are impressive. She doesn’t work long hours, in fact, the opposite. Her work-life balance is a source of envy for colleagues! By reflecting, choosing, assessing, taking risks and being herself, she has managed to reach lofty heights in her early career.

When she says no, others listen. Her rapport with colleagues and junior scholars is very good. Her ambition for the field comes through, and if it is personal ambition it is dressed very well, and communicated as a collective benefit. She is a senior research fellow, holding her own grant, highly decorated, feted and courted. I happen to know her well, she is my younger sister!

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Christine Drabwell nominated Professor Monica Grady CBE. Professor of planetary and space sciences at the Open University, primarily known for her work on meteorites and involvement in the robot comet probe Philae. Fellow of the Meteoritical Society, the Institute of Physics and the Geochemical Society. Gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 2003.

The price of fame; I’m sure Monica Grady could tell you a thing or two about that. When the Professor in Planetary Sciences appeared cheering, jumping and hugging TV presenters as the Philae lander momentously touched down in November 2014, she literally burst onto the media stratosphere. As well as featuring in most of the main TV broadcasts and coverage at the time, the spin-offs just keep on coming. Frequently the media’s go-to academic spokesperson for astronomy and space science news and commentary, she’s also featured in more mainstream media such as Celebrity University Challenge and even a spot on Desert Island Discs. Years of research, a life spent in space exploration and suddenly you’re a household name (“that scientist who got really excited on telly”). Some might say that’s good for her, but what about all the other hard-working scientists who struggle for media impact and proof points and who are doing equally powerful research? Should the likes of Professor Grady and other “media friendly”, high-profile academics, such as Mary Beard or Brian Cox, step out of the limelight? I think not, after all, doesn’t a rising tide lift all boats? We should recognise that Professor Grady and others in her position illustrate the value and scope of university knowledge and learning to ever expanding audiences. We all stand to gain from their profile raising. Personally, I think Professor Grady is especially inspiring for women, for would-be scientists and for her peers as a leading higher education communicator.

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Claire Toogood nominated Alison Allden OBE. Recently retired chief executive of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which she led for six years, and formerly deputy registrar and director of information services at the University of Bristol.

I first entered a higher education workplace in 2004, moving from a financial consultancy firm. At my previous employer, most senior female staff I met followed a traditionally masculine model of leadership; modifying or suppressing their "otherness", and hiding any family commitments to demonstrate commitment to the organisation. However in my new role, I encountered a very different model of female leadership, best personified by Alison Allden. At that time Alison was a deputy registrar at the University of Bristol, before becoming chief executive at HESA.

Alison demonstrated leadership behaviours I could identify with and aspire to. She ensured that her own strengths, some of which would be perceived as traditionally "female", worked for her at the university. Alison was empathetic and understanding; using these qualities extremely effectively to support, rather than undermine, her abilities as a manager who could take and follow through hard decisions. I admired her quietly confident manner, open approach to communication and the sharing of knowledge, and her supportive leadership style. In stark contrast with my previous encounters with female leaders she was also open about her commitment to her family and their needs, something I needed to see at that time.

Since working with Alison I have met other female leaders who continue to inspire me in different ways; helping me to consider how I can achieve my goals without unacceptable compromise. I feel this first encounter was formative though, and has positively influenced my work and career to date.

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Emma Butterwick nominated Wendy Shepherd, executive development director at Cranfield University, responsible for executive development delivered on an international basis.

I have known Wendy for three years and the positive energy she radiates in what can be quite a pressurised and competitive environment has always shone out like a beacon. She is incredibly down to earth, I have learnt a lot from her by the way she shares her knowledge with delegates and listens properly to their questions. She wants her students to achieve the grade they deserve and will work passionately with them to achieve this. She has equally strong skills in "having the awkward conversations", and has given me tips by role play.

For me, she is a role model because she left school at 16 to take up a role restoring antique furniture. After making a few false starts with her career she found her way into HR. In her mid-20s she applied to Salford University to complete an MSc in human resources. When seeking advice in pursuing my own degree in business and leadership she explained to me how the MSc had provided her with the credibility to take on more senior roles. After becoming an HR director and then a sales and marketing director she came to Cranfield to study for an MBA and she enjoyed her time so much that upon graduation she became an executive director and is currently studying for her DBA.

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Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs nominated her peers

My inspiration is from my peers rather than leaders – female or male. I have probably learnt more from bad leaders than good. I have seen how not to do something and the detrimental effects of certain management styles on teams of people both men and women. Forgive the negativity but I believe we shouldn’t put too much emphasis and expectation on individual women, expecting them to be brilliant role models or who we strive to be. I have spent too long in my career believing that the "guru" of female leadership in higher education exists – she doesn’t. She’s too busy working at her career, educating hundreds of students, conducting groundbreaking research and maintaining a family life (which, long after she retires, will be what she cares for the most).

My inspiration comes from those that have a quiet confidence in their ability and are tenacious enough to keep going in an environment that is in flux, those who are respectful and consider their actions and the effects on others while using their time wisely at work. A colleague once described working in higher education as akin to being self-employed and as such needing to be alert to your own opportunities and prepare yourself for them – no one else is going to do that for you, certainly not a benevolent leader – unless it benefits his OR her agenda.

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Izabela Cebula nominated Professor Lesley Yellowlees OBE. Professor of inorganic electrochemistry, and vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Back in 2012, when I was a postdoctoral student at the University of Nottingham, I had a pleasure and honour to meet Professor Lesley Yellowlees at the conference organised by the University of Warwick. She gave a talk for early career researchers on how to establish an independent career in chemistry.

Lesley is an engaging speaker, an inspiring women and she is actively promoting equality and diversity (the School of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh was awarded Gold Athena Swan in 2012). She is committed to promoting science and to making access to education widely available.

I personally find her to be someone who has goals, vision and integrity. She is very approachable and authentic in what she does. Her enthusiasm and engagement makes it hard to imagine her without the smile on her face.

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Kathleen Leedham-Green nominated Professor Evelyn Welch, professor of renaissance studies and vice-principal (arts and sciences) at King’s College London.

My inspiring woman within higher education is without doubt Professor Evelyn Welch. I first heard her talk at an Athena Swan event where she opened my eyes to the fact that gender bias in higher education was both real and unnecessary. I had previously considered the system relatively meritocratic, thinking that differences in pay and achievement were down to the personal choices that a woman makes about family v career. She systematically dismantled this argument with an impressively fluent analysis and critique, citing numerous sources of evidence which resonated with my own personal experience and that of my colleagues. I applaud her drive to understand and address the root causes of unequal participation (environment, attitudes and practices) rather than tinkering at the edges with token measures that lack an evidence base. On a more personal level, if I try to distil what it was about her that I found impressive, it was the air of authority that she had. This was refreshingly not based on power dressing or sharp-elbowed career mindedness. She was obviously comfortable in her own skin, able to lead and decide because she had put in the time and effort to listen, and was internally driven by a desire to right a wrong.

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Kellie Dean nominated Carol L Folt, a biologist, 11th chancellor and first woman to head the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The choice is easy. Why Carol Folt?

C – caring. She has updated the sexual assault policy at UNC-CH and has represented the university nationally on this issue.
A – assertive. She inherited an athletics/academics scandal and was able to maintain the university’s academic excellence and integrity during an intense investigation.
R – researcher. She has an impressive research track record as biological scientist.
O – open. She is influencing the whole Chapel Hill and North Carolina community, making the campus inclusive and striving to give back to the state.
L – learner. See R – she’s still an active researcher besides leading the operations of a complex organisation.
I – innovative. She is embracing change and new ideas for the university and for its students.
N – novel. Surpassing all previous records, she has been a champion fundraiser, including a $100 million commitment to establish an "innovation institute" in the pharmacy school.
A – accessible. She is involved, engaged with students and is ensuring that a public university is just that – accessible to the public.

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Louise Dybell nominated Professor Madeleine Atkins CBE, chief executive of Hefce since 2014 and former vice-chancellor of Coventry University. Trustee and board member of National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta).

My choice would be Madeleine Atkins CBE, former vice-chancellor of Coventry University, and current chief executive of Hefce.

In my view, she has a no-ego vision of higher education, and has had the vision to turn around a middling institution.

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Mary Catherine Lucey nominated Professor Orla Feely, vice-principal for research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin and former chair of the Irish Research Council.

They processed solemnly to the podium and she took her place at the lectern. In her opening lines she calmly stated how "at home" she felt on this, her first visit. With her confident wide stance and easy smile she looked like she belonged. In her red dress and black frockcoat she complemented her male companions in their academic robes.

She spoke fluently about her education and career as she traced her professional journey to her current position. The audience’s attention was held throughout. I caught a glimpse of my daughter, seated with her teenage classmates in their school uniforms (some with illicit daubs of makeup).

Watching the speaker, I felt proud of her as she deputised for the president of the university where I have lectured for decades. The president’s engagements in Asia prevented him from delivering the keynote speech at the secondary school’s annual prizegiving ceremony. So it fell to the vice-principal for research, innovation and impact in Ireland’s “Global University” to stretch the ambitions and horizons of local teenagers. Attired in her magisterial-style outfit, Dr Orla Feely, cut an inspiring figure as her clear voice impressed the schoolchildren and their proud parents in the school hall.

In the Cloths of Heaven, WB Yeats (born 150 years ago) urges us to "tread softly". I find it inspiring that a leader in an ambitious university, in these days of global economics, takes the trouble to impress a strong footprint locally.

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Nadine Ansorg nominated the qualities of inspiring leaders

I do not have one particular person that I find inspiring, but rather a couple of women who all have very inspiring qualities and skills, and who serve as role models to me. I think with any leader – female or male – it is important to have the right balance between what I would frame as professionalism and empathy. On the one hand, a leader needs to be successful in what she does. She needs to be efficient and competent in her work, and manage the tasks of her role with success. In academia this often means writing good publications, attracting funding, having an impact on society and, of course, managing the administrative tasks. But, in my opinion, being successful in a job is hardly enough to serve as inspiring leader. Very often, successful leaders only see their own benefits and stress without having an eye for the overall environment of the institute they are supposed to lead. Thus, an inspiring leader, on the other hand, also needs to be sensitive and understanding towards her surroundings and the needs of the staff. Should there be any problems or any serious questions, she will find time to discuss these despite a very busy schedule. Are there more people involved, she listens to all sides and then balances the arguments to find the best possible solution. Particularly in stressful leadership positions, this might not always be easy. But I think these are qualities that distinguish inspiring women leaders.

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Rita Walters nominated Susie Norton, marketing and communications manager at the Leadership Foundation, responsible for the contacts database, website and other marcoms.

My inspiring woman leader within higher education has got to be our Susie Norton.

She is constantly impressing me with her composure under pressure, and the way she directly deals with people who try to push back against her is something to be truly admired.

The work she has done upgrading our website has been a mammoth and, at times, a frustrating task but she’s always got a positive attitude and she will always make time for you if you’re in need of her help.

She has an unquestionable amount of knowledge, respect and dedication for higher education. Ask her anything about the sector, in terms of our programmes and events, and she’ll tell you who it would benefit and what institutions will buy into it.

Susie is my higher education superwoman!

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Rossana Espinoza nominated Jean Harrison, director organisation development and well-being at the University of Westminster

Her poise evokes simplicity and familiarity, just like the girl next door, the one you feel you can ask anything and at the same time seems far away.

What is it to be a chess master? She has the cognitive skills and capacity to design strategies and see patterns. She makes the best use of resources.

Determined to make a difference in the world for the only purpose of showing her daughter that she made a difference.

Inspired by a woman of impact, who influenced her career decisions, inspired her to pursue her passion, her bread and butter.

Driven to enjoy life by following only her heart in the decisions she makes and by not worrying about what others think.

Re-energised by having a walk by the desks of her team, keeping in touch with colleagues, having dinner with her loved one and close friends.

Devoted to engage in personal conversations over difficult topics and having the patience to explain complex subjects and seek answers to questions.

Complimented by the way she looked when she was younger but now by what she says, and very much prefers the compliments she receives now.

What is it to be a “consigliere”? She has the bravery to challenge, and to represent those choices that may not be popular but are necessary.

Her attitude suggests friendliness and authority, just like the old boss, the one you feel you can ask anything and at the same time seems far away.

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Sharon Cole nominated Tessa Harrison director of students and education at King’s College London and chair of the Association of University Administrators.

My inspiring woman leader from higher education is Tessa Harrison, director of students and education at King’s College London and chair of the Association of University Administrators. Tessa joined King’s just over a year ago bringing with her a wealth of leadership experience. She has been frank about her career journey, the mistakes she made, why she made them and how she tries to avoid making them again, sharing this openly to support others to develop good leadership skills. King’s is not an organisation with a great reputation in gender equality, from Rosaline Franklin’s exclusion from the men-only staff common room to the recent public highlighting of the gender pay gap at King’s. It takes senior members of staff like Tessa, in both academic and professional services, to stand up for gender equality and support development and leadership for women. Tessa is a member of the university Athena Swan team and has been involved in a number of events on women and leadership. She was involved in bringing the first global event of the National Diversity Council to King’s, the London Women in Leadership event in December 2015. The event gave participants, including myself, an opportunity to hear from women leader from across different sectors including business, law, finance, and academia. Tessa is a role model for women who aspire to be leaders in Kings, she always says "be the change you want to see". She is and she inspires me to be.

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