A development programme that aims to empower female academics has been criticised for suggesting that women’s image is more important than the quality of their work.
One researcher said that the training offered by Springboard Consultancy, which has been running work and personal development programmes in more than 35 UK universities for nearly three decades, was “unfit for an academic institution”.
The course offered to female academics, called Springboard, consists of four sessions delivered over three months. The course manual, the Springboard Women’s Development Workbook, advises women that 60 per cent of their chances of being promoted relies on their visibility, that 30 per cent rests on their image, and that quality of work accounts for only 10 per cent.
One of the case studies included is that of a 25-year-old graduate administrator called Morag who discovered that her “image” was getting in the way of a promotion.
“She resolved to smarten up, had her hair restyled and experimented with clothes,” says the manual. “A designer-type handbag replaced her rucksack, and Morag found that people took her aspirations more seriously and that her new image matched what she thought about herself.”
On the next page, academics are invited to rate how much their image is contributing to achieving their goals, with categories including weight, make-up and “sparkle in the eyes”.
A university researcher who attended the course told Times Higher Education: “The programme was unfit for an academic institution and more suited to a corporate environment.”
Kate Dossett, associate professor of US history at the University of Leeds, said that she dropped out of a Springboard course in 2008 because “the ethos of the programme at that time positioned women as the problem”.
“The programme encouraged them to ‘lean in’ rather than challenging the troubling gender hierarchies that shaped – and still shape – higher education,” she said.
Dr Dossett added: “Many of the women I met on Springboard were confident, successful and had developed numerous ways of negotiating difficult and often gendered obstacles in the workplace and beyond. They did not want to be told how women should behave in order to achieve success: they were interested in why certain behaviours were rewarded and others were not, and how they could work to change this.”
Karen Daly-Gherabi, managing director of Springboard Consultancy, said that while the company’s programmes were clearly “not perfect for all”, she was surprised by the criticism.
“Sadly, for many women, stereotypes are still very much an issue across all sectors, including academia, which – as just one example – is paying female academics significantly less than male counterparts,” she said.
“However, the programme is not designed to change society, nor institutional practice, but to prepare women to better deal with obstacles faced and, if it is appropriate, for the individual to challenge with the confidence to do so.”