Views from four female HE leaders

Women are woefully underrepresented on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, in the highest ranks of the press, and in the Cabinet, and the higher education sector isn’t an outlier.

Men chaired 81% of governing bodies and held 78% of vice chancellor or principal roles in higher education institutions, according to the WomenCount report, published in 2016. According to HEFCE equalities data [pdf], fewer than 4 in 10 of those in institutional strategic leadership and senior management roles were women. 

To find out what it’s like to lead an organisation within higher education as a woman, we asked four female leaders – with a wealth of experience in sectors ranging from local government to international politics, consulting and policing – about their experiences.

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS

Having previously been chief executive of Worcestershire County Council, Clare has experience of female leadership both inside and outside the HE sector.

How does the leadership in higher education differ from your experience of other sectors?

I really believe one of the key traits of a successful leader is being able to adapt your style, depending on what the circumstances require, so yes. My experience of leading teams during my time in consulting was that individuals wanted to be challenged and taken outside their comfort zone, whereas in local government it was about instilling the desire to change and look at things differently. However, in all the sectors I have worked in I have been inspired by those leaders who steer, direct and inspire while empowering those below them to be the best they can be. Great leaders build great teams that challenge but support them to deliver the organisation’s objectives.

Across your career, what have you found most challenging as a leader?

I really struggle with “game players” or “big egos”. I’m pretty straightforward – I come to work to be the best I can be, to enable those around me to be the best they can be and by doing so achieve the best outcomes for customers. Working in a team is one of the delights of coming to work and leaving your ego at the door really enables you to create high performing teams! I have a great team at UCAS who are more than happy to take the mick every now and then so that keeps me pretty grounded.

How do you think your experience working in higher education might be different if you weren’t a woman?

I’ve always tried to put the fact that I am a woman to one side at work as I have so many other things that define me in work, other than being a woman. However, I’ve always had interactions throughout my career with individuals that talk to your male colleague initially before realising they might have underestimated the contribution the blonde woman in the room can make. Thankfully, these experiences have been rare! Since joining the HE sector, I’ve been treated no differently than if I was a male by anyone within HE – that hasn’t always been the case in other sectors, but it’s early days so I don’t rule it out happening. Given I started my career in a very male-dominated manufacturing environment I would hope I am resilient and tough enough to deal with any sexist behaviour.

Any other insights you’d like to share?

While I don’t focus on the fact that I am a woman at work, I would say don’t be afraid of celebrating what’s unique about being a woman. I am always keen to help women – or men – try and pull off the difficult task of having a career and being an attentive parent as I know what a constant challenge it can be. However, you do need to want to be a leader to be successful at it. It can be lonely, challenging and desperate at times but is fantastically rewarding. This is never truer than within HE at the moment, with all of its challenges and change, whether they be regulatory, financial or reputational. The best advice I ever received, however, is to be myself. As Sheryl Sandberg, one of my favourite female leaders, said: “True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed… Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection.”

Valerie Amos, Director, SOAS

Appointed the first black female head of a university in the UK in 2015, Valerie has come from outside the sector with an impressive background in international politics, having previously served as secretary of state for international development, and leader of the House of Lords.

How would you describe your experience as a leader in higher education?

Being a leader is a difficult, lonely and sometimes painful journey but one which can yield major rewards. It’s possible to get things done. To be a change agent. It’s a powerful position to be in. The most creative and effective teams are diverse both in thought and makeup. It’s important to have courage and confidence as well as good support systems. And for me, it’s important to enjoy what I am doing. Being at SOAS surprises and challenges me every day – and that is a good thing. I am surrounded by students and staff who care about the world we live in and want to make it a better place.

Can you give an example of how you overcame a difficult situation in the early part of your career?

I have had lots of difficult situations to deal with and I try to use them all as part of my personal learning. For example being appointed to a senior role in a local authority when I was considered very young for the role and when just about everyone in the senior management team (all men) had applied for the job at some point, not got it and assumed that I only got the job because I was a black woman. The endless patronising behaviour I endured. I survived because I am very resilient, don’t like to fail and have a sense of humour which bubbles up at unexpected moments.

You became the first black female head of a UK university in 2015. How do you think HE could recruit more people from ethnic minorities into leadership positions?

The Equality Challenge Unit’s 2016 equality in higher education report shows that the number of female BME professors in universities in the UK is 1.6%. In terms of senior management, this figure is even less at just under 1%. These are unbelievably low percentages. The HE sector can’t be complacent. We clearly need to do a lot more to recruit people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds into leadership positions. That means looking at institutional policy and practice as well as challenging individual behaviours. For example, it’s about putting in place good recruitment practice, growing a pipeline of talent, opening up access, investing in training and development.

Maddalaine Ansell, Chief Executive, University Alliance

With significant experience in the workings of Whitehall, Maddalaine has been at the helm of University Alliance since 2015.

Your organisation is required to influence government and you have significant experience of Whitehall. Is this a different experience as a woman?

I suppose there is something about being aware of obvious pitfalls (being patronised or objectified) and then doing your best to behave as though they didn’t exist. I certainly do watch other female leaders to see how they go about being influential. In particular, I learned a lot from Nicola Dandridge, Madeleine Atkins and Mary Curnock-Cook. All have different styles but are very effective. They have all been very encouraging to me and generous with help and advice.  

How has your experience of working in policy differed having changed sectors?

We didn’t have the same debates about autonomy when working with the police! Perhaps surprisingly, they were also less hierarchical within each police force than universities are at senior levels. I am often struck by how hard it can be for vice chancellors to create the conditions where even their senior teams will speak truth to power. But across all the sectors I have worked with (police, local authorities, further education and higher education) people have been committed to public service values.

Any other insights you’d like to share?

Every leader has to work out how to lead in a way that fits with their values and works with their personality and gender is only one aspect of this. When I think about my impact as a leader I think as much about how my background has shaped me – especially class, religion and sport – as I do about gender.

Alison Johns, Chief Executive, Advance HE

Having risen through the ranks at HEFCE, Alison was chief executive of LFHE before Advance HE. She is now leading the merger of three organisations, with different cultures, in an era of high “value for money” expectation. Advance HE comes into being formally at the end of March.

At the Leadership Foundation, you do a lot of work to diversify leadership. How do you think organisations should approach recruiting more women into leadership roles?

As a starting point, organisations can recognise the imperative of diverse leadership; not only for compliance (which is really a minimum requirement) but also because studies demonstrate that it improves impact and effectiveness and, quite honestly it’s the right thing to do. There are many tools, instruments and processes designed to help, not least our unconscious bias training, Aurora programme and the Athena SWAN Charter as well as many other networks that operate in multiple sectors, such as the 30% Club. The starting point though is ambition and attitude.

As chief executive of Advance HE, you will be leading the merger of three different organisations with their own cultures. From a leadership perspective, how will you go about this?

As leaders, we need to live the values of our new organisation. At Advance HE I hope to create a collaborative organisational culture and instil the values of equality and diversity. We have been working together on our new values and will continue to do so through listening to each other. We have been using an appreciative inquiry approach to capture the voices across the organisation, ensuring that staff at all levels have their voice heard. It has been an effective and transparent way of bringing alive what we already have in common. Additionally, through a sector consultation Advance HE is able to ensure that our new offering is for the sector.

How do you think your experience working in higher education might be different if you weren’t a woman?

When I first joined the sector there were very few women in senior roles, and it did feel dominated by men. I hope now that I and other women are largely defined by how we are, not who (or what). I recognise of course from our research and the Aurora programme the challenges for women and that these are often about being heard, being confident and self-belief. Being authentic with your leadership is the key. It has taken me a long time to get close to this, it’s a life’s work! (Same for men actually.) Senior men in the sector also need to recognise (and I know many do) how they too can help women moving up into senior positions. I think it’s very positive to see we have an increasing number of male Aurora champions as well as a number of men stepping up into mentorship positions as part of the programme. I would like to finish by acknowledging the breadth and strength of the amazing female talent in HE from a wide range of backgrounds – social class, race, disability, that I have had the privilege and experience of working with.

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