Getting the gang together – reflections on women in HE leadership

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On the night before the election Newsnight interviewed a group of people who had worked with or knew Theresa May personally. On the question of May’s likely downfall there was unanimous agreement that it would come from her inability to – as her long-time friend put it – ‘get a gang together’.

Post-election, we see that the Prime Minister is learning the hard way that an inner circle is not enough. My experience of the Leadership Foundation’s (LFHE) Aurora ‘Women in Leadership’ programme suggests that getting a gang together is important outside of politics.

The Aurora programme runs over five months in five cities and has drawn over 3477 participants in the four years it has been running. It was developed following LFHE’s research which showed the decline in the number of women at successive levels of seniority. While there are more women than men enrolling in higher education study, in strategic management positions that figure drops to 33%. Only 19% of vice chancellors are women.

Professor Louise Morley’s stimulus paper for LFHE contains an interesting summary of the problem and the interventions that are sometimes proposed, one of which draws on Schiebinger’s provocative suggestion to ‘fix the women’.

While the Aurora programme is an example of this intervention type, I would argue that it is the system that is broken and ‘feminising the academy’ needs a more systemic approach. The systemic issue is a fundamental lack of diversity. While we have a single leadership narrative in place that represents only a thin slice of society (white, middle-class and male) we cannot expect to have the richness of a fully diverse leadership that truly represents our society.

I joined the Aurora course with reservations and internal conflict about a gender-based programme. I signed up expecting to gain from a refresh of my thinking, some time out to reflect on my practice, and the networking opportunities offered in an informal setting. The programme delivered on all of these, but what I found more powerful was the experience of sitting in a room with 114 other women who shared an interest in female leadership. This felt like being in a gang, one that was open, inclusive and focused on a shared objective. This is the kind of gang Theresa May needs, now that her rigid inner circle has been dismantled.

In discussions with my fellow participants we spoke of our personal triumphs and our common frustrations with the higher education system. These include the bias towards research over both teaching and professional services; short-term thinking; higher value placed on tasks and skills that favour roles undertaken by men, the list goes on. None of these frustrations were particularly surprising, but the openness with which we were able to share them felt special.

This openness could be found in the participants, the Aurora mentors, the facilitators, the inspirational speakers and the programme as whole. This is not to say that such openness is gender-defined, just as I don’t believe that women are pre-disposed to ‘caring and nurturing’ roles. It seemed to me more important that the conditions for openness were created in this space, and that doing so offers much more than merely ‘fixing the women’. It strikes at the heart of the systemic issues arising from the academy’s exclusion of alternative voices.

Openness and diversity go hand in hand. There isn’t one way to lead, or one model of leadership, but there is a dominant model of success and achievement around “productivity, competitiveness, hierarchy, strategy, and the inalienable logic of the market”, which favours the masculine. We see this every day in the recruitment, evaluation, and promotion of staff and how our unconscious biases determine what leadership and leaders look like. On the Aurora course, the theme of authenticity came up repeatedly, but how can we be authentic if different ways of thinking, feeling and acting are not recognised within the dominant narrative? How can the system open itself to alternatives?

LFHE have committed to the Aurora programme for as long as there is a need. The recent LEO data shows that inequality in salary and employment outcomes between the sexes starts even just one year after graduation. It seems that the need for Aurora (or something similar) is unlikely to disappear in the near future.

Gender equality is undoubtedly a matter of social justice, but perhaps it is also a game of numbers. The more women there are in the system, the greater the diversity and the more open the system becomes to other narratives of successful leadership. The more likely we are to successfully ‘get the gang together’.

How can our institutions serve society if they are not truly representative in their decision-making? How can our institutions derive value from diversity if they hold a one-dimension model of success and achievement? For me at least, the Aurora programme has provided an alternative experience that encourages different stories, different voices and ultimately a bigger, better gang.

1 thoughts on “Getting the gang together – reflections on women in HE leadership”

  1. David Dunbar says:

    Very much agree with comments in final two paragraphs which state fundamental issue/ position very well.

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