Five leadership tips for women in higher education

The first woman of Indian heritage to head a Russell Group business school shares leadership insights for women in higher education, from mentorship and resilience to self-discovery and embracing your unique identity

Palie Smart 's avatar
8 Mar 2024
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I am believed to be the first female of Indian heritage head of a school of management/business school at a university in the Russell Group. I am now the associate pro vice-chancellor for global civic engagement at the University of Bristol, a keen advocate for the progression of females and staff from under-represented backgrounds, chair of the university’s Athena Swan Committee, part of the Bristol Women’s Mentoring Network and I support the WHEN 100 Black Women Professors programme.

Making a meaningful difference that shifts the dial has always been a strong motivation for me. As a business school scholar, I was intrigued by the idea of putting management theory into practice in higher education leadership. Here are some pieces of advice I’ve learned along the way.

Come back stronger after setbacks

Everyone makes mistakes, and you will be no different. Don’t dwell too hard on what hasn’t quite gone the way you might have hoped, and think harder about your comeback. How will you recover and learn from what has happened? People can be forgiving, so show that you care enough to want to put things right; by doing so, you will demonstrate strong commitment and service to your staff and institution.

Seek out male mentors, too

I have been incredibly lucky to have been supported by the most senior women in my organisation, but there is no monopoly for women to mentor other women. Men have an important role to play in supporting us at work. I have worked closely with men who have wives holding senior leadership roles and ambitious daughters; they, too, are well placed to relate to your experiences and challenges. Be strategic in seeking out these men and their wisdom. Leadership often involves complex problem-solving, which requires diversity of thought, and men certainly can offer this, so be prepared to see value in harnessing gender and other differences.

Channel your energy

It is vital to forge strong relationships with your staff, but don’t assume reciprocity. If you operate an open-door policy in the hope that people will knock on your door with only good-news stories, think again! I’m a people pleaser, so I take on the emotional burden of wanting to make things better for colleagues when they come with bad-news stories. It took me time to realise that sometimes people weren’t always seeking solutions, but just wanted someone who would listen to them.

In leadership, when you are managing significant cultural and structural changes, you can’t avoid a small group that strongly resists the unfamiliar. This may be because of people’s genuine anxieties or sometimes a need to protect vested interests. It is important to make efforts to engage with these colleagues and co-create alternative realities with them, but don’t allow yourself to be disproportionately distracted from the majority who are excited about a new vision.

Engage in self-discovery

You are likely to be confronted with unprecedented complex challenges and will not be able to rely on your previous experience at some point in your journey. As you engage in collaborative team learning working alongside your peers and superiors, you will also learn a lot about your strengths and weaknesses. Be attentive to how your colleagues interact with you to understand how you best “learn to learn”, so you can put this valuable knowledge to use for your next challenge. I strive to become a better version of myself, and self-discovery is an important part of this endeavour. This has helped me gain the respect of my closest colleagues and, dare I admit it, my children!

Blending in and standing out

As a female belonging to an ethnic minority, I have spent much of my professional life “blending in” and hoping not to be noticed against my usually male, white and middle-class counterparts. This level of naivety has somehow helped me to succeed in reaching the ranks of university senior management, but I realise it won’t serve me any further. My role draws attention, and so unlearning the lifelong lessons around blending in and embracing the idea of standing out is a new challenge, and my biggest so far, but one that will allow me to own my achievements and (hopefully) inspire others like me to step into leadership.

Feeling a sense of inclusion and belonging and that I can show up as myself begins by acknowledging the sheer hard work of the great women who have supported my personal and professional development. Our vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellor, head of EDI, chief people officer and executive dean of arts, social sciences and law are all women and unparalleled forces for positive change at my university. It is partially because of them that I have been willing to take opportunities in leadership that have challenged me, helped me to grow and, most importantly, I am inspired to support the next generation of female academic leaders.

Palie Smart is the associate pro-vice chancellor for global civic engagement at the University of Bristol.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from other women leaders in higher education.


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