Leadership Foundation targets hurdles stopping women

Strategic barriers that lead to low female numbers in senior roles are a priority, says new chief

April 16, 2015

The goals of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education under its new chief executive, Alison Johns, will include helping to address the “structural barriers” that stop more women reaching senior roles in higher education, as well as seeing out a period of uncertainty over its own funding.

Ms Johns joined from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, where she spent 11 years and rose to head of leadership, governance and management.

The foundation offers sector-specific leadership development initiatives. Its Top Management Programme counts 63 current vice-chancellors among its alumni.

The organisation launched a new strategy earlier this year after consulting with the sector. Ms Johns, who took over as permanent chief executive in November, said the strategy had three “core activities”: “One is about our work to develop individuals…, the other is to support development at team level and organisational level through our consultancy work, and all of that will be underpinned by our research and innovation strand.”

The organisation is funded via its programmes, membership fees and support from the UK’s four funding bodies. “I don’t think the funding is going to be easy,” said Ms Johns, looking ahead to the possibility of “in-year changes to the grant letter, post-election, with the spending review imminent”.

One of the foundation’s programmes is the women-only Aurora. Ms Johns said the goal is to improve “the confidence and the awareness of the women who take part in those programmes about the opportunities: how to go up, how to balance the demands on their lives”.

There were often “structural barriers” to women rising to senior roles, she continued. Aurora participants talk about “a lack of confidence in their financial skills, and they see that as a barrier to their progression”. So the organisation is working with the British Universities Finance Directors Group on a finance scheme for “Aurorans”.

“Some women”, Ms Johns went on, “just don’t want what comes with the job. So that’s one structural barrier: the nature of the vice-chancellor’s job, which is 24/7.”

In terms of leadership and governance more generally, do recent sudden exits by vice-chancellors suggest a wider problem in the sector? Ms Johns said that “sometimes it may be because of choices made between them and governing bodies”, but added that the current rate of departures is “probably a healthy turnover”.

Could there be legislation on higher education governance in England under a new Westminster government? “I keep asking people that question myself,” Ms Johns said.

“A number of factors may influence that. If there are major governance failures or a major lack of accountability for public funding, that may bring about something.”

But for a new government, higher education regulation will “probably not” be top of the agenda, she said.

Higher education is “running itself pretty well”, Ms Johns said, while noting “worries and concerns about pressures on the student experience, pressures on innovation in teaching and learning. Greg Clark [the universities and science minister] is particularly concerned about diversity in senior roles and governing bodies – which I’m really delighted to see because it’s great to have ministerial support.”

The Leadership Foundation was a “fantastic little organisation”, Ms Johns said, “very low running costs but with incredibly high impact”.


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