Being an ambitious woman is not encouraged in our culture. Girls who try to lead are labelled bossy. It takes a brave girl to stay firm in her ambitions and aspirations.
Much has been written and spoken in recent weeks about the paucity of women in senior positions in higher education. Globally, while there are increasing numbers of women in higher education with female undergraduate enrolments now slightly outnumbering men, this is not translating into professorial posts, senior leadership or vice-chancellor positions.
In her stimulus paper, Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations (2013), Professor Louise Morley highlighted UK statistics from 2010/2011 that showed that while women made up 44% of academics, only 19% were professors and 28% were members of senior leadership teams. Anderson et al (2009) show that women make up approximately 30% of governors but only 17% were chairs of governing bodies. As Morley says, ‘lack of women in senior positions means that women are globally under-represented across all decision-making fora, including committees, boards, recruitment panels and the executive. This means that currently the expertise and skills of a significant part of the higher education workforce are being under-utilised’. My university has both a female chancellor and a female chair of council, both of whom are highly experienced and inspirational leaders. There are equal numbers of female and male faculty deans but, currently, I am the only woman on the senior executive team. I am one of six female Russell Group registrars (ie only 25% of the Russell Group’s 24 member institutions have female registrars). This article is a personal reflection on what it's like being a woman in a senior higher education leadership role and my journey to get there.
Much of the dialogue concerning the reasons for women's lack of presence at senior level centres around structural and systemic issues. Morley highlights gendered division of labour, gender bias and the concept of ‘greedy organisations’ where leadership is ‘exhausting, with unrelenting bureaucratic demands and institutional pressures’. She discusses research into gender stereotyping and its impact on women such that ‘managing identity, discrimination and other people's negativity can be an additional affective workload which deters women from applying for highly visible senior positions.’ In her book, Lean In (2013), Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, explores women's internal barriers as a significant hindrance to women gaining power. Sandberg presents a compelling argument for paying more attention to these internal barriers purely because they are in our control.
By ‘leaning in’ Sandberg is referring to the choice we all have to not be afraid. She says, ‘fear is at the root of so many of the barriers that women face. Fear of not being liked. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear of drawing negative attention. Fear of overreaching. Fear of being judged. Fear of failure. And the holy trinity of fear: the fear of being a bad mother/wife/daughter’ (2013, p24). I challenge any woman who says she has not at some time in her life felt one or, in my case, all of these fears. They are real. Undoubtedly men feel these fears too but somehow seem to have developed mechanisms to hide them. That is the challenge of leaning in: asking yourself ‘what would you do if you weren't afraid?’ Since reading Sandberg's book I have found myself asking this question many times and, as a result, after two years in post I am starting to feel more liberated to ‘lean in’ to my leadership role.
Sandberg talks powerfully about her upbringing, about the data on the academic performance of girls and about the leadership ambition gap that develops as girls learn to adapt to accepted forms of gendered behaviour. Being an ambitious woman is not encouraged in our culture. Girls who try to lead are labelled bossy. It takes a brave girl to stay firm in her ambitions and aspirations. I worked with a female senior academic leader who, at our first meeting, told me that the only thing I needed to know was that everything she did was for herself - at the time I was shocked at the nakedness of her ambition. I remember an early appraisal in which I was asked the usual ‘where did I see myself in five years' time’ question. I replied that I wanted to be an academic registrar but the indignant response I received left me spending many years regretting answering the question. The fact that the person asking the question was another ambitious woman confused me and subsequently caused me, throughout my career, to reflect on how women support women. ‘Not a lot’ is the conclusion I am saddened to have reached although what I now realise, of course, is that the women leaders I have known will have been struggling with their own leaning in challenges. I am reassured by Madeleine Albright's assertion that ‘there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women’ but I feel strongly that women working together must to be able to share their challenges and support each other's aspirations. The language of leaning in could be invaluable to us as we smash through the real and perceived barriers to progression. Strong women often perceive competition where they ought to experience sisterhood but this shift requires us to break down personal barriers and that isn't always easy in our institutional environments. It takes exceptional self-awareness, humility and real integrity to have honest conversations.
I went to an all-girls school where it was instilled in us that all things were possible; gender was not an inhibiting factor and our female head exemplified this. I became the first women's officer at Liverpool Polytechnic in the mid-1980s and was unashamedly feminist in my politics. As a young woman growing up under Margaret Thatcher it was impossible not to be highly politicised by a woman who had made it to the top but who was doing so little to champion the feminist cause. Like Sandberg, my friends and I did not talk about having to make choices between careers and children; it was assumed we would have both. I began my career in higher education as a departmental officer at Anglia Higher Education College (now Anglia Ruskin University) and was there promoted to a faculty role before moving to Lancaster University in the early 1990s, taking on registry, academic governance and teaching quality roles. I became academic registrar at the University of the West of England in 2005 and took up my current role at the University of Southampton in 2011.
On the face of it mine has been a fairly typical career path through the levels of higher education administration. My gender hasn't prevented me from seeking the next level and, to be honest, I haven't really given it much thought as I've moved from one role and institution to the next. I have been fortunate that my domestic arrangements have made it possible for me to balance motherhood and a career meaning I haven't had to face the difficult decisions so many of my female colleagues have had to make. More recently, reaching the senior level in my profession has forced me to question this apparent lack of consciousness. I recognise that there is no hiding place when you reach senior leadership. Everything you do and say is scrutinised for meaning; a careless throwaway line can come back at you in unimaginable ways (what my vice-chancellor calls ‘the echo chamber’); my gender does matter and I have a responsibility to do what I can to make it easier for the women coming behind me. Having the lead governance role in a university places additional expectations as staff look for consistency and adherence to rules you didn't make. I have a responsibility to ‘lean in’ and to be part of creating the conditions for other women to do the same.
I have recently completed a period of intensive executive coaching aimed at articulating and strengthening my leadership style and understanding how unconscious behaviours can undermine how one is perceived. The impetus for the coaching came from negative feedback from colleagues, some of which undoubtedly results from pre-conditioned views about how women should behave. The coaching began with an afternoon of storytelling; I was required to tell three success stories about myself. This was an excruciatingly difficult thing to do as the interviewer pressed me to articulate my successes, not those of my teams or others. This ‘showing off’ (as I saw it) is not something I'm comfortable with; I'm much more at ease when celebrating team success and the success of others. This led to an analysis that formed the basis of the coaching which took me on a journey back to my mid-teens as I understood how behaviours I learnt over 30 years ago have created the person and leader I am today. I have explored Sandberg's view that ‘... women are hindered by barriers that exist within ourselves ... we internalise the negative messages we get throughout our lives ... we lower our own expectations of what we can achieve ... getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power ... These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control’. My coaching journey has reawakened my feminist consciousness and reminded me that, in fact, I have suffered from the system and social inequities facing women - I don't earn as much as my male counterparts, I have at times fallen into the typically male trap of presenteeism, I have beaten myself up about whether I'm a good enough parent, I have allowed my lack of self-confidence to let unacceptable behaviours in myself and others pass, my words and actions have at times been inconsistent as I have yearned to be liked by those I work with.
Southampton is currently engaged in a transformational senior leadership programme involving 150+ senior leaders. As part of the programme some of us are being developed as executive coaches to support our colleagues coming up through the system. As someone who has just undergone a period of coaching, learning how to be a coach is proving to be an extremely powerful leadership tool as it combines the need for deep self-awareness with an ability to support others to face and challenge their realities and pre-conceptions. As Sandberg says ‘sharing emotions builds deeper relationships. Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about. To really care about others, we have to understand them - what they like and dislike, what they feel as well as think. Emotion drives both men and women and influences every decision we make. Recognising the role emotions play and being willing to discuss them makes us better managers, partners and peers’.
Leadership is about quickening peoples' spirits around a vision for the future and organisational transformation. While charismatic leadership and passion are important for quickening people’s spirits, authentic leadership is what will bring about sustainable change in our institutions. Authentic leadership takes an incredible amount of self- awareness. It is this aspect of Sandberg's book that I am most interested in - being able to acknowledge and understand your own internal barriers is an important first step in becoming an authentic leader; being able to share that understanding with others (men and women) is fundamental to us changing the culture in our organisations and in society. Morley says ‘... leadership is the essential ingredient in successful organisational transformation ... values, behaviour, dispositions and characteristics can strategically overcome institutional inertia, outflank resistance and recalcitrance, transform and provide direction for new university futures'. What brings Morley and Sandberg together is Morley's articulation of fixing the women, fixing the organisation and fixing the knowledge; we have to address all three. This is not just about the diversity of our organisations; it is about equality and inclusivity. As Sandberg says ‘when the suffragettes marched in the streets, they envisioned a world where men and women would be truly equal. A century later, we are still squinting, trying to bring that vision into focus. The blunt truth is that men still run the world. This means that when it comes to making the decisions that most affect us all, women's voices are not heard equally ... It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled ... We can reignite the revolution by internalising the revolution’.
|I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference; who created the conditions for others to exceed their potential.|
I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference; who created the conditions for others to exceed their potential, whether staff or students. I am finding that's not as easy to do as the words are to say. Leadership in a university setting requires us to be really careful with the words we use, to present compelling cases for evolution in inherently conservative (with a small c) institutions and balancing the needs of a very wide range of internal and external stakeholders. Leadership in universities takes time; it cannot be rushed and it cannot be anything other than authentic. Leadership in universities takes incredible resilience. Reflecting on my successes since taking up my role at Southampton, they are all concerned with appointing outstanding people into the university and with creating cross-functional teams that feel empowered to move something forward around a well-articulated vision of what's possible. Confidence in yourself as a leader comes from being able to tell your own story in ways that others can connect with. My recent coaching experience and engagement with the literature referred to in this piece are enabling me to develop my story and to begin the process of fixing myself.
In the spirit of supporting others, I should note that the opportunity to write this piece came about when Beth Pearce (EA to the CEO and administrator to the board of the Leadership Foundation of which I am a member) asked if I wanted to review Lean In. Following her own work on Louise Morley's research into the frustratingly low numbers of women in senior HE leadership roles, Beth wanted Sandberg's book to have a higher profile in the sector. Diane Bebbington (diversity adviser to the Leadership Foundation) is currently working with the CEO and wider staff and board members on an exciting and proactive strategy on equality and diversity for change in higher education.
Albright, Madeleine. Keynote speech at Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA's All-Decade Team, 2006
Anderson, D., Rutherford, S., Sealy, R. and Vinnicombe, S. (2009) Governing bodies, equality and diversity. Research report 2009. Cranfield University School of Management. www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/governing-bodies-equality-and-diversityresearch-report-2009
Morley, L, 2013. Women and Higher Education Leadership: Absences and Aspirations. London: The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
Sandberg, S, 2013. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. 1st ed. London: WH Allen
Tessa Harrison, registrar at the University of Southampton and LF board member, reflects upon life as a woman in a senior leadership role in higher education.