The art of hiring female leaders

Higher education could learn a lot from the arts sector about recruiting senior women. Part-time roles and job-shares could be game-changers, says Joanna Read

June 1, 2017
Women leaders

When I became principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) in 2010, much was made of the academy’s first female appointment to its top job. Yet coming from a theatre background, it seemed to me to be a non-story. My only comment was: “About bloody time.”

Compared with higher education, the arts are progressive in terms of promoting women. According to research commissioned in 2015 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, 37 per cent of galleries receiving annual funding of more than £1 million from Arts Council England are run by women. The same research also revealed that women lead 40 per cent of Scotland’s best-funded galleries and 50 per cent of those in Wales.

In comparison, a report by Women Count, published in April 2016, found that less than one-fifth of senior leadership roles in UK universities are held by women. However, if you look to the small specialist performing arts institutions, it’s a different story: the majority are led by women. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

The higher education leadership model favours men. The top jobs are full-time and full-on. Where are the part-time roles? Where are the job-shares? Research increasingly proves that flexible working is more productive, creative, satisfying and attractive to women, so why are such roles not being introduced in the very institutions producing that research? Only last year, the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that working more than 25 hours a week leads to a decrease in brain function and that if someone works more than 60 hours a week their brain performs worse than that of someone who doesn’t work at all.

Before joining Lamda, I was joint chief executive and artistic director of the Salisbury Playhouse. There, I employed both a part-time financial director and a part-time development director. Both posts were held by highly experienced women. They wanted part-time roles for a better work-life balance and because they had caring responsibilities; I needed their experience and seniority, but I never would have been able to afford them full-time. If you think universities are cash-strapped, come and try to balance the budget of a regional repertory theatre!

These women delivered all the strategic and managerial direction that the theatre needed in the time they spent at work (about 25 hours a week, coincidentally) and, through good development programmes, they empowered their teams to step up and deputise when necessary.

So how can we instigate a move towards flexible working in senior higher education roles? As with any successful culture change, it has to start at the top. University boards are responsible for hiring the senior team and agreeing the structure of governance within their institutions. Therefore, we need to consider carefully how the members of these boards are chosen. If they are primarily white, middle-class males who have always had full-time careers, then change is less likely; unconscious bias means that we recruit in our own image, whether we mean to or not. If you are a board member, go out and recruit someone who looks nothing like you, someone who didn’t follow your path but still has the experience needed for the job.

Interestingly, compared with large companies, higher education does well on gender diversity at board level, with over 30 per cent female representation. But once again, it lags behind the arts. Arts Scotland, for example, has committed to 50 per cent female membership of arts organisation boards by 2020. Universities need to work harder to diversify and to bring new ideas into leadership structures and roles. They need to think carefully about the sort of jobs they are making available at executive level and ensure that they are attractive to women.

Those in my position, meanwhile, need to support and encourage our middle managers and deputies to take the next step. For example, we need to encourage women on maternity leave not just to come back, but to go for promotion.

Finally, we need to remind ourselves and other women that there is nothing wrong with wanting to lead – and everything to be gained by being in charge.

Joanna Read is principal of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

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