Improve women’s accessibility to leadership by following these steps

Weaving equity practices into talent and succession planning and creating roles that work alongside personal commitments are just two of the ways you can enhance the diversity of your leadership


22 Feb 2024
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Diverse teams make better decisions. The evidence that they help organisations, including universities, attract and retain colleagues, generate more creative ideas and achieve better results is overwhelming. In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, it’s vital we address the question “How can we include more women in our leadership teams?”

It turns out it’s not hard. We offer seven concrete suggestions below that apply to women, but they also work to attract and retain other great leaders who belong to equity-deserving groups.

Invite women to join your team

You might be surprised to hear us suggest this since it seems so obvious. But for many teams, in the immediate term when you don’t have leadership turnover, strict adherence to “role” precludes diversity. Let’s say your team includes your vice-presidents and none or few of them are women. Why not invite a dean or an associate vice-president who is a woman to join? This way, you can diversify the team, create richer discussions and outcomes and grow talented employees and colleagues.

Have each member of your team cultivate a diverse group of possible successors

Unless you’re in the fortunate position of having the resources to expand your team, the opportunity to diversify only arises with turnovers in roles. And even though turnover is predictable (we all move on at some point!), many higher education institutions don’t approach succession in an explicit and deliberate way. Each member of your team should be responsible for cultivating a diverse pool of internal talent: people who might be able to step into the role in either an emergency or when the role is vacated.

This is easier than many people think. It requires that leaders look, in an open-minded way, at the people who report to them (and perhaps sometimes who work in adjacent fields but who could bridge knowledge and other gaps). You can create intentional opportunities to fill roles with an equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA) recruitment lens, build relationships and partnerships with diverse communities, weave equity practices into talent and succession planning and ensure that other leaders on your team have critical EDIA training and understand inclusive leadership. You can also build equity-related responsibilities into development and performance measures. 

Colleagues from equity-deserving groups are often underestimated or, because of implicit bias, they might not seem like obvious successors. Yet we know that active sponsorship of equity-deserving colleagues makes a difference to their willingness to step into leadership positions. We also know that equity-deserving employees leave organisations at higher rates than their colleagues. When we intentionally cultivate internal talent, it improves the likelihood that there is a diverse pipeline of people able to step in when positions become available.

Attend to the realities of life

It’s no longer the case that only women do caring work. But the data still suggests that we do more of it than our male colleagues. That means that if your team is expected to work atypical or long hours or travel away from home for extended periods, you want to design roles that work alongside people’s life commitments. For example, it can mean a lot to families to be able to regularly (or always) eat breakfast or dinner (or both) together. Keeping team meetings scheduled between 9am and 5pm can really help people meet those family commitments. 

You can also ensure that people have the right tools to work remotely or in hybrid formats, review leave policies to ensure they meet or exceed minimum standards and have flexibility built in, examine meeting spaces and the frequency and accessibility of meetings and ensure that you use engagement surveys and check-ins with questions that help you better understand work-life balance and care commitments.

There used to be a perception that no job could be done outside of fixed hours and that, to work effectively, people must be physically at the office. We’ve learned this isn’t true. Good team members will care about doing a good job. They can help you understand how they can accomplish excellent results while building their work time in a way that enables them to satisfy their other obligations. Understanding how flexible and alternative work arrangements can truly meet the evolving needs of your workplace is key.

Include other women on your team

The reality is, you can’t just stop with one. Most of us connect across all kinds of differences: identity, expertise, personality type, for example. We also like to work with people with whom we share some common experiences. If you create singular outliers on your team (eg, one woman on a team of five) it can be challenging for those people to feel fully included. Once you start down the path of inclusion, you should keep at it.

Work collaboratively with people you’re seeking to bring into the fold outside of full-team environments

When we work in teams we often work as a whole team (for example, in weekly team meetings) and in smaller groups (for example, when the communications person, the government relations person, and the advancement person get together to work through a tricky external relations file). Be attentive to whether you include a diverse group of colleagues in those “outside the team” smaller-group meetings. Those meetings enable informal relationship-building and expertise-deepening, including expertise about the university. They are enormously valuable to all of us.

Pay people equitably

We hope we don’t need to say more here, but there is nothing more demoralising than discovering that you are being paid less than other people on your team for doing the same work.

Be willing to change

The full benefit of building an inclusive team only materialises if you’re willing to change to embrace new voices, perspectives and ways of doing things. Change is shockingly hard, especially in higher education institutions. But in our sector, when you do something truly great with an amazing group of people, the consequences for the world can be spectacular.

Kim Brooks is the president and vice-chancellor of Dalhousie University and Grace Jefferies-Aldridge is the vice-president of people and culture at Dalhousie University.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.

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


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