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Women in wonkery speak

To mark International Women's Day, seven women from across different parts of HE life share their experience about the barriers they faced in their careers and the best advice they received to help them get ahead.
This article is more than 8 years old

Louisa Darian was Deputy Director at Wonkhe, and is now an advisor at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In support of International Women’s Day, we have been posting a series of blogs this week to explore the issue of women in wonkery. We asked some women from across the sector to share their experience of working in higher education, the barriers they’ve faced and how they’ve got ahead. Here’s what they said:

Kalwant Bhopal, Professor of Education and Social Justice, University of Southampton

Kalwant-Bhopal-wonkheAs a non-white woman, my gender and race have in some respects affected my career progression. There is ample evidence to suggest the under-representation of BME academics in senior roles and as a non-white woman, I have had to enter a space in which white privilege operates. However, one of the key issues that has helped me to progress is the advice and support of a valued mentor. Finding a mentor who has experience and knowledge of key networks is crucial in enabling you to advance your career. The role of the mentor is also to provide you with support, honest advice and to act as a critical friend. There are various ways of finding mentors, firstly ask yourself who would be a good mentor for you, what similarity of interests do you have? And secondly approach them, preferably face to face – they can only say no and in my opinion, most people are more than happy to help.

Hannah Brian, Executive Officer, University of York

Hannah-Brian-york-wonkheBe yourself, rather than manufacturing what you think people expect you to be. People will soon suss if you’re faking it. Speak up, give your informed opinion and accept people might disagree with you. What you say might be right, it might be wrong but don’t let that stop you giving your opinion. Most importantly make sure you know what your strengths and weaknesses are – and be honest with yourself about it.

The best advice I got when I was building my first team was to recruit to my weaknesses and recruit people better than me – such good advice. Too many leaders (men and women) recruit people just like them or recruit people they know won’t threaten their position. That’s self-defeating. Get the best people into your team and expect them to challenge you.

Finally – have a passion outside work. It’ll give you a different perspective, give your brain a rest and remind you to leave your desk occasionally!

Debbie McVitty, Director of Policy, University of Bedfordshire

Wonkhe-Debbie-McVitty-smallWe all need to define what getting on means to us. I love taking on change projects, and my style is about listening to people, using influence and persuasion and creating shared goals. The world includes people who don’t see the value of that approach, some of whom will bolster their own ego at the expense of people they perceive as weak. It can include an unpleasant gender dynamic but sometimes it’s just human nature in action.

The only thing in your control is your own response to situations. You still have to work with people even when their attitude fills you with a white-hot rage. Find ways to resolve conflict and reflect on your own role and attitudes, but never be apologetic about the way you see the world, and don’t let your confidence get chipped away. Forge a ‘work family’ of colleagues who will give you constructive feedback about how you’re doing and support you in tackling workplace challenges.

Selena Bolingbroke, Strategic Advisor, Goldsmiths, University of London

  1. Network internally and externally, and if you can across sectors, then care for and curate your connections.Wonkhe Selena Bolingbroke board member
  2. Don’t wait to be invited, invite yourself.
  3. If something’s not right tell someone, don’t stay quiet.
  4. Embrace the detail, especially know your numbers, big picture stuff is great but numbers are what any organisation runs on regardless of your role.
  5. In meetings: don’t linger near the tea stand; never pick up your pen & pad too early in the meeting; never wear black and white. All of which put you at risk of being mistaken for the waitress or secretary.

Stephanie Marshall, Chief Executive, Higher Education Academy

stephanie_marshall wonkheThe key ‘perceived at the time’ barrier to early career advancement for me was self –doubt and gullibility. Self-doubt reared its ugly head from time to time and stemmed from the fact that rather than applauding diversity, as I do now, I focused on difference (ie mine!). I can remember going for a job very early on in my career, sitting in a room with towering, large be-suited candidates (all male). I was told confidently (and patronisingly) by one chap that ‘we’ve already looked at houses, and I’m signing up to that Sports Club across the way’. Sitting there, I wondered how he knew he’d got the job. Then my name was called out. I went into a room to be offered the job by the all-male selection panel. I almost said ‘what about so-and-so; I thought he’d got it?’ When I realised that self-doubt and gullibility had caught me out. And so this pattern continued for many years while I felt the ‘outsider’ for a number of reasons (eg gender, background, single mother). Finally I came to the realisation that ‘difference’ actually made me stronger. Difference had required me to be more assertive, more determined, and ultimately, more outspoken. So, what would I advise those who feel similar self -doubt when surrounded by people who forcefully occupy space which can be to the exclusion of others?

  • Remember, you have every right to be there too;
  • Operate with integrity: stick to your value set;
  • And, finally, enjoy the journey!

Sarbani Banerjee, Acting Head of Learning and Teaching, HEFCE

Looking back on my past fifteen years, three factors stand out. Do they matter more for women? I think they do because sometimes weSarbani-Banerjee-hefce-wonkhe mistake believing in ourselves and being bold as ‘pushiness’ – which is not the case:

  1. Be an expert: in getting heard, there is no substitute for knowing your area inside and out – and practice communicating what you know as simply as you can
  2. Trust yourself – and speak up! Sometimes you’ll feel like a lone voice, and that can be uncomfortable. But have faith that you have something valuable and unique to contribute and be persistent
  3. Really listen – to those you manage, to those you work for, and especially to those who don’t share your views. Understanding and working with the grain of what motivates others will speed the journey.

Sue Shepherd, Research Associate at the University of Kent and HE management consultant

Wonkhe Sue Shepherd contributorMy advice is simple: be yourself. It’s easy to get sucked into a stereotypical view of what a leader should be like, especially if you’re a woman. But if you’re not true to yourself you’ll probably be found out at some point and, worse still, you won’t fully enjoy what you’re doing.

And the most powerful tool at your disposal? The ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and see the issue from their perspective. Once you can do this, you’ll be able to anticipate – and deal with – their concerns and objections. It’s also a great way to see yourself as others see you!

We are running articles all week on women in HE – find them all under the #Women and Wonkery tag.

One response to “Women in wonkery speak

  1. Just a little anecdote in response to Stephanie Marshall: I too was interviewed for a role I was actually offered, but was told by one of the other candidates (male) just before I went in to be interviewed that I was a “great smiler” and that would stand me in good stead through the disappointment of not getting the job!
    Needless to say, as it was my first management role, I was floored by his comment and somehow managed to do my best through the interview and get home asap.
    How delighted I was to receive the call just over an hour later, offering the job to me.
    I learned from that to be more confident in my ability and authenticity, to avoid naysayers, and that collegiality and mutual respect isn’t universal in HE. Since then I’ve done all I can to support and encourage other women, and have had the same support from several great female leaders and colleagues..

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