I found my voice as a woman in academia; here’s how you can do the same

People want to know that you are competent. If you are not a capable pilot, no one is going to get on your plane, writes Veronica Hope Hailey

Veronica Hope Hailey 's avatar
15 Feb 2024
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Working in business schools for nearly 35 years meant starting my career in male-dominated environments. In my first job, I think there were about five women in total on a large faculty. The students were nearly all men. I vividly recall a student newsletter that featured cartoons and comments about my and other female colleagues’ dress sense. That would not be allowed to happen now, thank goodness, but it did then.

I can also remember challenging why I had not gone through for promotion at the same time as a male colleague when I clearly had the same CV, if not a better one. The answer I got was that my hair was looking a lot better these days, so I could go for promotion next year. Navigating through such an environment was at times utterly demoralising, but when I’m sometimes now described as feisty, I just smile at people and think, “You have no idea what I have had to put up with to get here!” Having a supportive partner and family was and remains a great source of affirmation.

My area of research is leading strategic change, and I have been fortunate throughout my career to have worked with very senior leaders in business and government. I learned from watching and listening to these (mostly) incredibly able people; that’s been more helpful than anything else that the higher education environment has provided me with. So what have I learned?

People will listen if they trust and respect you. I found my voice in meetings through being recognised as an able and trustworthy leader. People want to know that you are competent. If you are not a capable pilot, no one is going to get on your plane. People will also trust you if they can see integrity within you, which usually requires honesty and transparency at the core of leadership. I like to think I have a reputation for communicating uncomfortable truths rather than comforting lies. How does that play out in practice?

Do your homework: to be able to speak up and pursue one’s case, one must have done the preparation before any meeting. That means reading any papers, however dull. If you are going to disagree, gather evidence and perhaps share that information in advance.

Listen to others: listen to those who have a different point of view from you. Luckily, most people I have worked with in higher education have good intentions, and I can always learn from those who might seem like opponents. Also, listen to the mood music of any meeting. What are other people’s concerns and worries, not just your own? To have a voice, you need to listen to others’ conversations, not just blurt out what’s on your mind.

Know when being there for other women matters: in the past, I have been the only woman taking part in some senior discussions. Suddenly, situations might arise where, knowing that I am the only voice women have in that discussion, I must be responsible and brave enough to speak up for all.

Pick your moments and arguments: people trust competence, not someone mouthing off opinions. If I am asked to contribute on a subject I’m not confident with, I will couch it by saying, “Look I am not an expert on this, I can only offer my opinion based on experience.” Also, know when to keep quiet. Every chair thanks those who help them keep to time. When I was younger, I thought I needed a voice on most of the agenda. Now I don’t think like that. I know which items matter to me and I let others hold forth until we get to the critical issues that affect my faculty and staff.

Prepare the ground politically but honestly: I have found it useful to warn other people that I am going to “have some difficulties” with what they are proposing. Just this week, I was going into a committee and I was disappointed with some colleagues who had not shared a paper that had an impact on my school before submitting. Before the meeting, I just said: “Look, I am going to be honest with you. I’ve got problems with what you’re going to say; I am disappointed that you didn’t run this past my team in advance; I am not going to have an argument with you in the formal meeting, but I have expressed my concerns to the chair and we will take this offline.”

Growing old as a woman has mixed blessings. On the one hand, I am confident from my decades of experience but very conscious that, just as assumptions used to be made about women and their legitimacy in leadership teams, people are unconsciously biased against older women in Western societies. So I say to the rest of you, I might not arrive at meetings in Lycra and running shoes, but it doesn’t mean that my brain is any less alert than yours.

As for legacy, I would like to feel that I have been a role model for other women. I have shown that you can be a mother of five daughters, and a grandmother, and still lead well in complex and challenging situations.

But don’t outstay your welcome. Have the humility to know when it’s time to pass the baton to somebody else. We all have only so many talents or innovations to bring. University leadership should never be built around the personalities of an individual – it’s a team sport. My attitude is that, when I have finished this circuit of the relay and run my best race, I will happily pass the baton to another.

Veronica Hope Hailey is the dean of the University of Bristol Business School.

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


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