Careers intelligence: how job shares can help women progress

Emma Watton and Sarah Stables share insights from their research on, and personal experience of, how job shares can help women secure senior roles and also benefit universities

November 13, 2019
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We are all aware that men still occupy the majority of senior roles in higher education. Figures from WomenCount in its Leaders in Higher Education report showed that in the UK, 27 per cent of vice-chancellors are women and the percentage of women among those heading up faculties or schools stands at 31 per cent.

The report highlighted a “professorial roadblock”: only 26 per cent of professors were female in 2017-2018 – and gaining a professorship is usually a prerequisite for going on to a vice-chancellor position. These figures on the shortfall of women in senior positions align to the shortfall that we see in women’s pay. 

There are similar findings and figures in higher education across Europe, North America and Australia. It is also not unique to higher education: the aviation industry and financial services sector are among the worst performers on gender pay gaps because of the high proportion of men holding senior roles.

At present, there are no sectors in the UK where women are paid the same as men. For this situation to change significantly, a wide range of solutions needs to be adopted across sectors as well as by individual organisations.

The financial services industry, for example, is now one of the most proactive sectors, through adopting diversity targets, balanced shortlists and flexible working  By comparison, the top three measures adopted in higher education are gender-neutral job adverts, unconscious bias training and development programmes. These measures are likely to fall short of delivering the change needed.

So what else could we try? One action that we believe in is promoting job sharing at senior levels. To be clear: job sharing goes beyond flexible working and part-time working; it is two people sharing one job.

Job shares could help plug the leaks in the female leadership pipeline. Women often must make difficult choices about if and when to start a family and this is often at a crucial point in their careers. These career breaks are one of the reasons that role progression can be harder for women.

Sometimes women can be reluctant to apply for senior leadership roles. This could be because of a scarcity of female leadership role models, a perception that they do not meet all of the essential and desirable criteria for the role, or because of the masculine culture that still exists in many institutions. The success rate for women who do apply for a senior leadership role is half that of men applying for the same role. But job shares can address a lot of this.

We were fortunate enough to hold a leadership job share for three years in professional services. We had to convince the university where we worked that it was viable to hold the role as a job share, but it soon became apparent that there were many benefits from the employee and employer perspective.

The complexity and demands of some senior roles can be shared instantly with a supported and trusted colleague, and this makes roles more tenable for both men and women. We found that the job share became a form of leadership development through the relationship, feedback and observational learning that took place between us.

Because of split holidays and minimal time off through illness, as we were sharing, the role was highly efficient and effective. Several reports have highlighted the increase in productivity and innovation through job sharing and having more diversity in senior roles.

Two heads are better than one, it seems. Job sharing also enables organisations to retain existing talent and attract new talent.

So how might job sharing be promoted within higher education?

  • Endorse and proactively promote the vast majority of roles as being suitable for a job share. Waiting for applicants to ask about job sharing potential at interview is already too late.
  • Change people’s perceptions about job sharing. It is a valid option with benefits to all parties, not simply about accommodating employee need.
  • Recognise job sharing as a way of helping to create greater equality at work and creating more female role models for other women to follow.
  • View job sharing as strong management practice that leads to increased productivity.
  • Form job share networks across the sector where potential partners could meet and participate in activities such as action learning or leadership exchanges.

Emma Watton is director of the executive MBA at Lancaster University and Sarah Stables is director of higher education enterprise development consultancy Stables & Co. The ideas in this piece are drawn from an article the writers co-authored with Steve Kempster of Lancaster University Management School, “How Job Sharing Can Lead to More Women Achieving Senior Leadership Roles in Higher Education: a UK Study”, published in Social Sciences.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Get ahead with joint effort     

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